By DANYA PEREZ-HERNANDEZ
EDINBURG — A new disaster declaration in the Rio Grande Valley due to recent rain has many wondering how the region will fare during hurricane season.
With this and many other questions in mind, researchers at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are collecting data to evaluate not only the level of preparedness of the region but its overall resilience, an aspect they say tends to be undermined.
“With these disasters you know they are coming, they come every year,” said Dean Kyne, assistant professor of sociology at UTRGV. “If we focus on the reactive approach, we are never going to be able to focus on the proactive approach … we need to change that mindset.”
Kyne, Arlett Lomeli, David Wladyka and Katarzynia Sepielak, of the UTRGV Department of Sociology and Anthropology, along with Owen Temby of the School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences, have a pilot study underway that focuses on the Valley’s hurricane resiliency, the proactive approach to the matter.
Unlike hurricane preparedness, Kyne explained, the resiliency aspect doesn’t focus on just how well prepared an area and its residents may be for a possible natural disaster, but the steps implemented to recover from the event.
“Resiliency is the building of capacity in order to absorb the extended shocks and bounce back to a normal condition or even better-than-normal condition,” he said. “It is like the recovery part … you have the capacity to recover if you build it, you design it.”
Cities or counties might have systems implemented that alert residents of the area of an event like a hurricane or tornado, and they then have on average 72 hours to prepare. This involves collecting important documents, seeking refuge, or many times, evacuating a zone, he said, but there has been little focus on taking the time to fully evaluate a city’s infrastructural preparedness and ability to quickly address a disaster condition.
The team of researchers, which includes a group of graduate students, are currently analyzing data from the four counties in the region — Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy — to present stakeholders with its findings and come to an agreement on what areas, or indicators, in need of focus.
These indicators, Kyne explained, will be what researchers focus on when measuring the county’s level of resiliency, which will allow all of those involved to move forward with plans based on the unique needs.
“Everybody will be involved,” he said. “Then what we can do is measure the current state of resiliency and we can see what are the areas that we need to improve and what are the areas that we need to maintain. Then what will be our goal in one year, and what will be our goal in a two-year time.”
This is the second part of a long-term research project that led to the publication of a 2017 study: “Who Will Stay, Who Will Leave: Decision-Making of Residents Living in Potential Hurricane Impact Areas During a Hypothetical Hurricane Event in the Rio Grande Valley.”
This study focused on the evacuation decision-making process and what might influence an individual’s decision. He said this includes what they consider as a safe place, the kind of building or home they live in, and even the amount of help they expect to get from government officials, among other factors.
Now for this second part, graduate students are currently reviewing the data, hoping to have a better snapshot of the counties by the end of the summer. But recent rains and widespread floods that lead to a new disaster declaration in the area are only one more reason Kyne hopes stakeholders have open minds to invest in areas that might help them mitigate damage and cost in the future, knowing the potential of these disasters reoccurring.
“This rain is nothing if you compare it with rain and flooding after a hurricane,” he said. “Our Valley is weak in that kind of mitigation planning and forming the strategies on how we get better at communicating … So we don’t really talk about that resiliency yet, and there is much room for improvement.”