Louisiana resident at a public forum about the BP oil disaster and the widespread use of toxic dispersants. (Photo: Erika Blumenfeld Ã
While the devastating ecological impacts of BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are obvious, the less visible but also long-lasting psychological, community and personal impacts could be worse, according to social scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists.
"People are becoming more and more hopeless and feeling helpless," Dr. Arwen Podesta, a psychiatrist at Tulane University in New Orleans told Truthout. "They are feeling frantic and overwhelmed. This is worse than [Hurricane] Katrina. There is already more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more problems with domestic violence, threats of suicide and alcohol and drugs."
Dr. Podesta, who also works in addiction clinics and hospitals said, "It's a remarkably similar experience to that of the stressors of Katrina. There is an acute event, but then a long-term increase in hopelessness with every promise that is broken. Like a promise for money to rebuild a life, then people are put through red tape and each time they fail to move forward, they take five steps back in their psychological welfare."
"The total number of years this will affect us is unknown," Dr. Podesta said, adding, "however, it could affect us for possibly 20 to 30 years."
Dr. Janet Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Tulane University, told Truthout, "People are on edge. People are feeling grief. I'm hearing of physical illnesses related to the oil and people are worried about losing their home, their culture, their way of life."
Sociologists studying the current BP disaster, along with other man-made disasters, make a distinction between "natural" and "technological" disasters.
"What we find in our field when we study technological disasters, i.e., human made disasters, is that the impacts are chronic," Dr. Anthony Ladd, a professor of sociology at Loyola University explained to Truthout. "They don't really end. With a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi, although we experienced that as a technological disaster with the levee failure here in New Orleans, the only silver lining with a natural disaster like that is that people move through it. They actually end up building a stronger community, there's more social capital [trust] going on in the community and people find they have to rely on each other."
Other sociologists, like Dr. Steven Picou with the University of South Alabama, defines technological disaster as "a human-caused contamination of the ecosystem" and explains that they are "not a typical part of the geographical area you live in."
Dr. Picou has studied other technological disasters for the last 30 years, including the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. He, like Dr. Ladd, points to another important distinction between natural and technological disasters - that there is a drawn out period of recovery and accompanying uncertainty that make technological disasters, like the BP oil disaster, much more threatening to the health and welfare of affected people and communities along the Gulf Coast.
"With natural disasters, there is this sense that they will get through it and there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Dr. Ladd explained. "Yes this is horrible, yes we've lost our homes, yes people have been killed, but we're going to pick ourselves up at some point, dust ourselves off and we can see recovery down the road. But with technological disasters you don't get that. It's a very different spiral into a malaise, into anxiety, into a feeling that there is no end in sight. You don't know when the impacts are going to stop."
Dr. Anthony Ladd, showing a cover story about trauma caused by the BP oil disaster. (Photo: Erika Blumenfeld © 2010)
August 29 is the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Johnson, like others in the social sciences, explained that much of Louisiana was still in recovery from that disaster. Thus, the BP disaster has augmented and restimulated traumas from Katrina.
"It's a long-term stressor, the damage is done even if it's capped," Dr. Johnson explained. "Who knows what the long term repercussions are. When can we eat seafood? Has it destroyed the marshes? What about a hurricane? Will we be covered in oil? This area is still recovering from Katrina, so this just puts an added burden on the mental health care system. We have much fewer services than we did pre-Katrina, because a lot of our major hospitals have not reopened and our conservative governor wants to privatize everything, so they've cut services."
Dr. Ladd, whose major area of research centers around the impacts of environmental disasters on communities, draws direct parallels between the BP oil disaster and the Exxon Valdez disaster. "You don't know when the BP check is going to show up in the mail, if ever. You don't know when the feds and the state are going to do their thing, toward recovery. It's a chronic unending spiral of people into often deeper and deeper levels of anxiety, and research shows that one of the major sources of anxiety is the litigation process itself. So on top of everything else the disaster throws at you, then you have the decade long experience of trying to litigate your way back to your economic livelihood or trying to get some kind of economic compensation for what you've lost and of course that never comes."
Using the 1989 Exxon disaster as an example of this, in 2008 a corporate-friendly Supreme Court took the original $5 billion judgment against Exxon from 1994 and ended up granting only 1/10th the amount, $500 million, to the citizens of Cordova.
"So they weren't able to save their businesses and many weren't able to stay in the community," Dr. Ladd said. "The litigation process itself is a huge source of anxiety and we're not anywhere near seeing what that's going to be like in this case, given that the dimensions of this disaster are way beyond what we saw in Alaska."
Another impact we can likely expect from the BP oil disaster comes from what Dr. Picou has written:
"Chronic economic impacts systematically invade the social fabric, causing a cascade of social pathology for communities, families and individuals. The sociological lessons of the Exxon Valdez for the human condition clearly document this fact. Because of fear and uncertainty regarding the ecological consequences of the Exxon Valdez, intense social conflict emerged within communities, causing the fragmentation and marginalization of various groups."
Sociologists define this type of collective trauma as the "corrosive community," which contrasts with "therapeutic communities" that typically emerge in the wake of natural disasters. Corrosive communities are typified by loss of trust, uncertainty regarding the future and anger that results from technological disasters.
Dr. Picou is currently involved in studies involving Gulf Coast communities that have been directly impacted by BP's oil.
"Picou is already talking about the parallels he's seeing," Dr. Ladd said. "Community, family and individual impacts. So in addition to psychological stress, you've got a spike in domestic violence, suicides. There were over 13 suicides attributed to the spill in Cordova and a spike in divorce rates. These are some of the very common impacts that we know that tend to be associated with technological disasters."
The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University conducted a study from July 19 to July 25, including surveying of 1,200 coastal residents in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"There's been a very overt effort by BP and the Coast Guard to project a sense that the crisis is over, but this is far from the case," Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the center and president of the Children's Health Fund, a sponsor of the survey, reported. "Our survey shows a persistent and overwhelming level of anxiety among families living near the coast, driven by both medical symptoms in their children as well as a substantial level of psychological stress."
"I've seen a lot of people teetering on the edge of wellness since Katrina who now have increased fears and are decompensating into severe depression and resurgence of PTSD from Katrina," Dr. Podesta said. "I work in addiction and I've seen a lot of increase in alcohol and other drugs, domestic violence and making severe threats about suicide, or threats towards their spouse and children. I'm seeing that more often now, directly related to the fear of what may happen to the livelihoods, lifestyles and economics of folks being directly affected."