When Multiple Disasters Strike: Louisiana Fishers in the Aftermath of Hurricanes and the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Katie E. Cherry (ed.)Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_4

4. When Multiple Disasters Strike: Louisiana Fishers in the Aftermath of Hurricanes and the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Bethany A. Lyon , Pamela F. Nezat , Katie E. Cherry  and Loren D. Marks 

Department of Psychology, Louisiana State University, 236 Audubon Hall, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-5501, USA

School of Family Life, Brigham Young University, 2092C Joseph F. Smith Building, Provo, Utah, 84602, LA, USA



Bethany A. Lyon (Corresponding author)


Pamela F. Nezat


Katie E. Cherry


Loren D. Marks

Hurricanes Katrina and RitaTechnological disasterEnvironmental devastationCumulative adversityBP oil spill


The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the US Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Many coastal residents, especially commercial fishers, were directly impacted by the approximately 200 million gallons1 of oil that spilled into the Gulf Coast. Years after the spill, lasting effects to the coastal communities can still be seen. Louisiana Gulf Coast fishers and their families offer a prototypical example of cumulative adversity , given that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged this same region in 2005, followed by severe Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. Given the paucity of research on both natural and technological disaster exposure, individuals and families who have weathered storms and are striving to endure the uncertainties of the BP oil spill have unique insights to offer on cumulative adversity during a historically difficult period of time and circumstance. Our objective in this chapter is to capture and express the fears and concerns faced by commercial fishers and to convey the resilience exemplified by many of the individuals and families who shared their experience with us during structured interviews conducted at least 12 months after the BP oil spill.

Overview of Literature

In the paragraphs that follow, we briefly review previous studies that span three catastrophic oil spills: the North Sea oil rig disaster , the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and early findings from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill . We then turn our attention to the concept of cumulative adversity and a closely related notion, the pileup of demands that impact family stress and adaptation in the wake of multiple stressors .

The 1980 North Sea Oil Rig Disaster

The 1980 North Sea oil rig disaster occurred between the United Kingdom and Norway. One of the rig legs broke and the entire oil rig capsized due to poor weather conditions. Of the 212 men on board, only 89 survived the disaster (Holgersen, Klöckner, Boe, Weisæth & Holen, 2011) . Holgersen et al. (2011) carried out a longitudinal study focused on long-term mental health after the oil rig disaster, testing participants in 1980, 1981, 1985, and 2007. Based on analyses of participants’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) , four symptom trajectories were revealed: resilient, recovery, chronic, or relapse. The largest group was the resilient group (n = 43), which had diminishing PTSD scores after the disaster—and in many cases reduced to a score of zero after just a few years. The recovery group (n = 10) showed a gradual decline in PTSD symptoms across the 27-year span. The chronic group (n = 8) showed essentially no reduction in symptoms across time, and the relapse group (n = 9) followed the initial gradual reduction of symptoms in the first few months post disaster, but then experienced a gradual increase in symptoms over the course of the next 27 years. These trajectories and typologies convey widely differential adjustment patterns across individuals experiencing the same disaster. Additional research is needed to help determine (and perhaps predict) which people impacted by a disaster are most at risk for falling into one of the latter, more negatively impacted and less resilient groups.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez supertanker disaster on March 24, 1989, on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska was (at the time) the worst oil spill in the US history. Many studies document long-term threats to mental health in commercial fishers affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. For instance, Palinkas, Petterson, Russell, and Downs (1993) tested participants in 13 Alaskan communities affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill 1 year after the disaster occurred. The researchers determined that participants who were highly exposed to the oil spill (those who resided in coastal areas) had higher rates of mental health problems than those from a community further from the disaster area. Arata, Picou, Johnson, and McNally (2000) also studied commercial fishers 6 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Their findings indicated that those who suffered economic loss after the spill showed higher levels of depression, PTSD , and anxiety than those who did not experience economic losses.

Comparisons Between the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spills

The Exxon Valdez findings ,which document profound and lasting harm for those whose livelihood depends on natural resources , provide historical precedent for understanding the current circumstances of the US Gulf Coast fishers (including shrimpers and oystermen) affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Gill, Picou, and Ritchie (2012) reported a direct comparison between the Exxon Valdez disaster and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill for the mental and social health of people directly affected by the spills 5 months after these events. High stress levels were found in both groups of participants, with the strongest predictors of high stress levels being family health concerns, commercial ties to the renewable resources, [uncertain] economic future, economic loss, and exposure to the oil.

The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was reported to be the worst spill this continent has ever seen, with estimates of 200 million gallons of oil that poured into the Gulf of Mexico (Gill et al., 2012) . The spill has been devastating to the commercial fishing and seafood industries. The long-term impacts of an oil spill of this magnitude on the environment and the industries tied to the environment are still undetermined. When an event of an unprecedented scale occurs, experts have no direct point of reference. Some researchers have looked to previous oil spills in order to extrapolate and to establish some hypothetical expectations to relieve the uncertainty felt by coastal residents, as well as anticipating the environmental implications, but this is not an easy charge. It is, of course, a more attainable goal to estimate damage done versus predicting future effects.

Indeed, there is evidence pertaining to the immediate psychosocial impacts of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill . For instance, Grattan et al. (2011) compared coastal community residents directly impacted by the oil to those who were indirectly impacted but found no differences in psychological distress between the two groups. Differences in mental health were found, however, between those who faced economic loss and those that did not, with those experiencing economic loss also experiencing psychological impacts after the disaster, consistent with the Arata et al. (2000) findings from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Lee and Blanchard (2012) surveyed coastal residents to assess community attachment, negative affective states, including anxiety and fear, and other sociodemographic characteristics while the oil from the BP spill was still flowing (June 2010). Analyses of the full sample (935 households) and subsequent analyses aggregated by household type (family member employed in the oil industry; fishing/seafood industry; no involvement in either industry) indicated that greater attachment to their community of residence was associated with higher levels of psychological distress. This finding was surprising in that community attachment has been widely recognized as having a beneficial effect on community resilience and well-being. Lee and Blanchard’s (2012) findings imply that the salutary effects of community attachment may not hold in crisis conditions immediately after a technological disaster. The authors also suggested that a high level of community attachment may have made residents less likely to leave even though they were living in a social atmosphere full of stress, worry, and negative affect. In a follow-up investigation, Cope, Slack, Blanchard, and Lee (2013) reported additional survey data collected in the same geographic region using different household samples tested at two later intervals: wave 2 (4 months out from baseline, October 2010) and wave 3 (1 year from the explosion date, April 2011). Cope et al. found that physical and mental health effects were worse at wave 1 baseline assessment when the spill was still flowing compared to waves 2 and 3, implying that uncertainty is a major factor in post-disaster distress. They also found that stronger community attachment was associated with reduced psychological distress in the later waves of testing overall. For fishing households, however, significant interaction effects with the time of testing variable indicated that the negative mental health impacts at wave 1 remained evident at waves 2 and 3, suggesting that fishers may be uniquely vulnerable to distress associated with the BP oil spill 1 year later (see Cherry et al., 2015, for related discussion) . Interpretative caution is warranted, because different household samples were compared across the three waves of testing. Nonetheless, Cope et al.’s results highlight the complex relationship one’s stress level has with the community they are surrounded by, which also appear to vary over time for coastal community residents directly impacted by technological disaster.

Cumulative Adversity and the “Pileup” of Demands

As documented in the existing literature, dealing with traumatic life events can be difficult and trying: but multiple traumas , especially within a narrow time frame, can have devastating effects, particularly if a second trauma occurs before the victim has recovered from the first one (Marks, Nesteruk, Hopkins-Williams, Swanson, & Davis, 2006) . In the 5 years preceding the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill , Gulf Coast residents had been forced to navigate their way through the aftermath of four major Hurricanes (Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike) . Mental health becomes a prevalent concern when individuals, families, and communities face so much adversity, particularly in such a compressed period of time. Mong, Niguchi, and Ladner (2012) tested Gulf Coast residents for PTSD and their use of coping strategies , 1–2 months after the BP spill was stopped. Mong and colleagues found that 28 % of their sample showed significant levels of PTSD symptoms. Further, negative coping strategies were positively correlated with PTSD symptoms for the participants directly affected by the oil spill. These results could be due in part to the immediate time frame of the study, in which the participants are still in a type of aftershock. Positive coping strategies, however, were negatively correlated with PTSD symptoms. Mong and colleagues stressed the importance of studying potential long-term impacts of the oil spill to learn more (regarding both positive and negative coping).

Keinan, Shrira, and Shmotkin (2012) examined lifetime cumulative adversity faced by middle-age Israelis. Their findings suggest the more trauma an individual faces, the higher the level of distress. However, those who experienced two or less adverse life events also reported lower well-being (as gauged by quality of life and optimism/hope) than those who experienced three adverse life events. The authors suggested that cumulative adversity may activate both positive and negative effect, in distress and well-being. The authors also note that their index of cumulative adversity does not gauge duration or severity of the traumatic event, which are likely critical variables to consider.

Seery et al. (2010) have also studied cumulative adversity through the course of one’s life and resilience against the negative outcomes associated with those events. Their findings show that mental health and well-being were the highest for those that reported some adversity, compared to those that report none as well as those that report the higher levels of adversity. The average number of adverse life events (i.e., bereavement, loved one’s illness, relationship stress, violent events, social stress, personal illness, and disasters) experienced by participants was 7.69 events. Participants who had lived through a small number of traumatic life experiences exhibited lower scores of distress, less functional impairment, fewer symptoms of PTSD , and higher life satisfaction. Those who have been through more than the average number of traumatic experiences showed a reversal of these findings, with higher marks on the negative outcomes and lower satisfaction with life, revealing a U-shaped curved function with relation to the number of adverse events.

As implicitly noted in our brief overview of research related to catastrophic oil spills, psychological trauma, and cumulative adversity , the extant literature primarily contains findings based on psychometrically sound measures yielding strictly quantitative data. The current chapter’s findings are based on qualitative data derived from in-depth interviews and participants’ responses to open-ended questions. Qualitative research allows for a unique opportunity to highlight what the participants consider important and can allow them to elaborate their thoughts, feelings, and concerns in a much more detailed manner than a closed response paper and pencil measure (Marks & Dollahite, 2011) .



In all, 64 commercial fishers and their family members were tested (M age = 54.7 years, SD = 15.7; age range = 21–90 years; 34 men and 30 women). They were enrolled in a research program on post-Katrina resilience described more fully elsewhere (see Cherry et al., 2015) . All had experienced catastrophic losses in the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and were directly affected by the 2010 BP oil spill. They were recruited from multiple sources in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes (counties) and through a mailing to the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association (UCFA).

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on When Multiple Disasters Strike: Louisiana Fishers in the Aftermath of Hurricanes and the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
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