How Two Local Communities Are Fighting Back Against the Trauma of Global Climate Change

We must build resilient communities before disaster strikes.

Residents of Sienna Plantation, a Houston suburb, ride a canoe in high waters following Hurricane Harvey, August 29, 2017.
Photo Credit: michelmond/Shutterstock

Communities around the globe are feeling the effects of climate change, from scorching heat waves and out-of-control wildfires to lengthy droughts, rising sea levels and hurricanes. But while we all share the same warming planet, the effects of climate change aren't experienced evenly across societies. Climate change poses a disproportionate threat to communities that already face multiple challenges, including economic disinvestment, higher rates of violence and exposure to other environmental hazards.

When individuals experience severe weather events, violence, displacement and other crises that prevent them from being able to meet their basic needs, they experience trauma, which can have significant and lasting impacts on health and wellbeing. Entire communities can experience trauma in much the same way. Exposure to adverse community experiences—such as violence, systemic racism, serial displacement and climate catastrophes—can result in high levels of trauma across the population and a breakdown of the very social networks that, under other circumstances, help communities survive and recover from traumatic experiences.

Community trauma and climate change converge in communities across the United States. On Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, the Hoh Indian Tribe has lost nearly one-third of their land due to rising sea levels. However, since the reservation is located in a federally designated, 100-year flood and tsunami risk zone, the tribe isn't eligible for federal assistance that would help the tribe relocate their homes and community to safer ground.

In New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina, public housing complexes that suffered minimal structural damage were closed and demolished, drastically reducing the supply of affordable housing in the city. These examples illustrate the need to protect communities in the first place, rather than simply responding to disasters after the fact.

Here’s what that can look like.

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana: A narrow island that sits deep in the marshlands of southern Louisiana, the Isle de Jean Charles is home to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Native American tribe. This island is the epicenter of cultural traditions and social connection for its residents. Once a place of tremendous physical beauty, biodiversity and cultural importance, these tribal lands are now vanishing due to coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, marshland damage by oil and gas companies and rising sea levels.

In the midst of this adversity, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw took collective action to address the trauma of their disappearing homeland, and applied for and received federal funding to relocate further inland. Residents are working alongside the State of Louisiana Office of Community Development-Disaster Recovery Unit to design and develop a culturally appropriate site where they will be able to renew and preserve their cultural traditions and connections, be protected from future environmental hazards, and thrive.

Houston, Texas: When Hurricane Harvey made landfall along Texas’ Gulf Coast in August 2017, the storm delivered record rainfall and left behind widespread catastrophic damage. In addition to the damage to homes and businesses, the storm displaced individuals, families and communities throughout the region, contributing to trauma at an individual and community level.

Recognizing the widespread trauma in the hurricane’s wake, as well as high levels of community trauma in regions of the state that face other adverse community experiences, Mental Health America of Greater Houston, Prevention Institute and the City of Houston Health Department are mobilizing support for a trauma-informed community rebuilding policy in the Texas legislature. 

This policy would ask the state to identify, in partnership with community-based partners, the best ways to address and prevent trauma at a community level and provide support for communities across Texas, particularly those that live on the frontlines of climate change.

Too often, we wait to act until after disaster strikes. That leaves us with fewer options—we're left picking up the pieces, rather than anticipating, mitigating and preventing traumatic experiences. While repair, reconstruction and even relocation are essential elements of disaster response to ensure the immediate safety of community members, we need to identify ways to build community resilience before the storm.

Efforts that focus on preventing climate change, addressing the impacts of climate change, and supporting resilient communities are essential to reducing the unequal burden climate change places on vulnerable communities and ensuring that these communities are better equipped to handle other challenges before they have a chance to occur.

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Ruben Cantu is a program manager for community trauma, mental health and violence prevention at Prevention Institute.

Ali Goodyear is a graduate student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.