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Engaging the Community

Tragedies as Catalysts for Resilience

A Team Approach to Identifying Resilience in International Communities After Natural Disasters

flowerHurricane Katrina was the first of many devastating natural disasters to strike the globe since 2005. Although serious hurricanes, famines, earthquakes, and tsunamis have devastating effects, surviving individuals often exhibit considerable strength by rebuilding their homes, lives, and communities. This courage has not gone unnoticed by UNC researchers who over time have identified the need for cross-disciplinary research with families and aging populations facing adversity and displaying resilience. Graduate students have also contributed to the work. Faculty Researchers included Drs. Robbyn Wacker (Acting Provost with specializations in gerontology and sociology), Ann Bentz (Special Assistant to the Dean of Natural and Health Sciences and expert in Exercise and Sport Science), Susan Collins (Assistant Professor of Gerontology), Nancy Karlin (Professor of Psychological Sciences), Sherilyn Marrow (Professor of Communication), Gary Swanson (Mildred Hansen Journalist in Residence), and Joyce Weil (Assistant Professor of Gerontology).

Drs. Karlin and Marrow joined forces in 2006 to develop a rhetorical and psychosocial framework for examining resilience. Their research started a year after Hurricane Katrina, during which they interviewed community members in New Orleans who were demonstrating strong coping skills. The research team discovered that the survivors viewed the disaster as an opportunity to demonstrate their individual and family strengths. These individuals “stepped up,” kept a positive attitude despite their hardships, and showed limited signs of depression. The survivors’ resilience seemed to be directly associated with their positive frame of mind and fueled by the key variables of social support and communication.

This correlation led the research team to wonder: Do similar patterns of resilience occur in other parts of the world following natural disasters?

In 2010, the researchers had the opportunity to examine another population in the aftermath of a disaster. Professors Marrow, Karlin, and Swanson, and two graduate students, Tara Spencer and Sara Baum, traveled to Peru and spent over a week with earthquake survivors in the small village of Vina Vieja. Previously a community of 350 people, only 186 individuals remained in the village after three earthquakes occurred between 2007 and 2010. Amazingly, no casualties resulted from the earthquakes, but numerous villagers left the area out of fear or an inability to sustain their livelihoods. With help from translators, the researchers interviewed 35 community members. The Peruvian survivors generally displayed negative moods, experienced low self-efficacy, and felt helpless in response to the three earthquakes they had endured. The villagers did not believe that they could control crucial aspects of their lives and commonly referred to a higher deity causing the natural disasters.

After obtaining different perspectives on survival in New Orleans and Vina Vieja, the research team speculated that resilience is directly linked to social support. Research participants in New Orleans had considerably more social, financial, and government support after Hurricane Katrina. On the other hand, the Peruvian villagers felt abandoned by fellow community members who left the village after the earthquakes, and they received no financial help from village leaders. The differences between the situations and the survivors’ responses reinforced the need for cross-cultural research on resilience. However, there were also similarities in the two populations. Both communities had individuals striving to create better lives for themselves after the natural disasters struck.

engagingIn order to refine their conceptual framework on resilience, the research team took on the challenge of addressing two questions: What experiences are universal after a natural disaster? Which other experiences are culture-specific? They have used both quantitative and qualitative methods and are trying to develop etic (universal) and emic (cultural-specific) constructs with regards to resilience.

Drs. Karlin and Marrow, and Dr. Weil, who joined the group in 2009, intend to continue to investigate cultural differences. For example, to understand the daily experiences of Italian elders (ages 63 to 90), Drs. Karlin and Weil analyzed 27 in- depth interviews conducted in a local organization that serves seniors in Rome. Further data will be collected from elders in Thailand this summer with comparison data from Botswana and the U.S. during the following acadmarremic year.

The research team is committed to giving back to the communities they research. In Peru, Betty Brown, UNC alumna and active member in Partners of America, taught English classes, and Dr. Marrow and two graduate students delivered a program called “Talk Share Care,” in which they encouraged children to express their feelings in the aftermath of the crisis. In Italy, UNC students spent time with Italian elders. In Thailand, students will interact with Orchid Bloom children from north of Chiang Mai, work with a program addressing prostitution in Thailand, and travel with a relief worker who trains farmers to grow mangos and grapefruit instead of opium. “We walk away feeling energized, knowing we left a situation better than we found it,” Dr. Karlin said.