Guide for dealing with an oil spill

How do technological disasters affect communities? What can you do to help?

“The fishing season of 1989 was projected to be the opportunity of a lifetime: big volume, big prices. Then the oil spill hit…no herring season, no fishing season. Everybody left to work the oil spill; your employees left to work the spill. Then the people who made big money working the spill left the following winter after the spill. So, businesses were all inventoried up, all dressed up for the party which didn’t come…”
– Cordova, Alaska, business owner, 1989

The human impacts of oil spills are not typically addressed in state and federal oil spill contingency plans. To help fill this gap, the Council developed a guide for communities and individuals on how to deal with technological disasters such as an oil spill.

The “Coping with Technological Disasters” guidebook and appendices contains science-based strategies to help ease the invisible impacts of oil spills, and help local governments, small businesses, families, and individuals cope with these disruptions.

The guidebook is a road map for communities and individuals to understand:

  • What a technological disaster is
  • How the effects differ from a natural disaster
  • What to expect during a technological disaster
  • How the effects can linger years following the event
  • Where to find help

What is a technological disaster? 

A technological disaster is a catastrophic event caused by humans which often result in toxic contamination of the environment. These disasters can have very different effects compared to a natural disaster. Technological disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disrupt communities in many ways:

Visible disruptions

The most obvious and tangible disruptions occur to the ordinary flow of goods, services, and jobs. For example, the 1989 spill created thousands of high-paid jobs in cleanup work. As a result, ordinary employers in communities—village stores, Native corporations, and city governments—lost workers and found it even harder to function normally during the crisis.

These visible disruptions can be measured and monitored and usually goods and services can be restored in a reasonable length of time.

Invisible disruptions: Mental health and chronic long-term effects

However, there are other often ignored, poorly defined, poorly understood, intangible adverse impacts stemming from a technological disaster. These include initial negative mental health impacts and chronic long-term psychological and physical impacts.

Results of Exxon Valdez oil spill studies indicate that mental health impacts persisted 10 years post-spill. These impacts included disruption of family structure and unity, family violence, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and psychological impairment.

The extent of chronic mental health patterns may be tied to a community’s dependence on local natural resources for survival. As such, Native and non-Native fishing and subsistence-based communities are at higher risk for elevated levels of chronic psychological stress associated with technological disasters.

The Guide: Updated in 2021 

The latest version of Coping with Technological Disasters: A User Friendly Guidebook is now available.

Coping with Technological Disasters - A User-Friendly Guidebook, Version 4 (0.9 MB)

  • Appendix A - Conducting A Community Survey (PDF 0.3 MB)
    This appendix provides information on how data on an affected community should be collected before outreach activities begin. It is an example of potential questions or topics to cover in a community survey, as well as some guidelines on conducting focus groups.

  • Appendix B - Outreach Activity - Community Education Media Series (PDF 0.3 MB)
    This appendix provides community education articles on technological disasters and their potential effects on communities. Appendix C is a companion to these articles using radio programs to provide additional community education information.

  • Appendix C - Outreach Activity - Radio Education Program (PDF 0.4 MB)
    As a companion to the series of articles from Appendix B, the radio programs in Appendix C provide additional community education information related to technological disaster impacts on communities from professionals who study technological accidents.

  • Appendix D - Resources For Professional Training (PDF 0.7 MB)
    This appendix provides in-service training suggestions, modules, and resources for teachers, law enforcement, clergy, and others. The materials included are broken down into three sections: a training content guide; a resource guide with links to additional information to help support in-service trainings; and a guide of activities for educators and parents to help children process their feelings following the trauma of a disaster.

  • Appendix F - Peer Listener Program (PDF 0.3 MB)
    Previous versions of the Guidebook’s Appendix F included a Peer Listener Training session outline as well as materials for distribution during a training. Developed during the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, this training was used during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It teaches listening techniques that help create a social support system that can help communities where professional mental health services may not exist. The original appendix materials are now outdated, given how the fields of peer-to-peer support and community resilience have evolved since the material was originally created in the mid-1990s. The Council is currently working to update this material. Appendix F still provides an introduction and background information on the original program, as well as resource links for those looking for additional information.

  • Appendix G - Outreach Activity - Talking Circle (PDF 0.2 MB)
    This appendix provides an overview of a cultural activity common for Indigenous Alaska Native, Native American, and Pacific Islander populations. The talking circle activity may be an option for engaging more diverse populations in a community.

  • Appendix H - Supporting Information Local Government – Preparing And Responding (PDF 0.3 MB)
    This appendix is provided to assist local governments and decisions makers in understanding the incident command structure that may be formed during the event of a technological disaster. Information is also included on how local governments can structure their own response to keep their constituents informed (such as holding public meetings), some tips on managing public relations, and the types of information local decision makers might want to track during an event.

  • Appendix I - Supporting Information Local Government – Alaska Open Meetings Act (PDF 0.2 MB)
    This Alaska-specific appendix explains why it is important, even in the midst of an incident response, for governing bodies to abide by the Alaska Open Meetings Act (AS 44.62.310-.312). Failure to do so has led to court cases and community disruption in the past.

  • Appendix J - Curated Bibliography On Human Dimensions Of Disasters (PDF 0.3 MB)
    This appendix provides an overview of relevant literature and web resources.

  • Appendix K - Additional Volunteer Coordination Information (PDF 0.2 MB)
    This appendix is designed to be supplemental information, in addition to Chapter Six of the guidebook, to help a Volunteer Manager set up a Volunteer Coordination Program, including sample forms and suggestions for design of the Volunteer Referral Center.

Is your community currently affected by an oil spill?

The Council has advised many communities after oil spills, including the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Contact us for more information.

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