Close up of volcano and lava flow. Life Solved logo and episode title

Working with communities in the wake of natural disasters, to help prevent tragedy

  • 04 May 2021
  • 17 min listen

Can you imagine living at the foot of a volcano, or in the path of extreme storms? Plenty of communities around the world live with the potential of a natural disaster taking place on home turf. That’s why early warning systems and robust research can make the difference between life and death.

In this episode of Life Solved, Dr Carmen Solana shares her experiences of researching hurricanes and lava flow and interpreting the data to work hand in hand with communities at threat.

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Vulnerable communities

Hurricanes, extreme storms and severe meteorological events are more frequent occurrences due to global climate change. In addition, many communities living in vulnerable places don’t have the knowledge, infrastructure or early-warning systems that can prevent such events from having a disastrous impact on human life, buildings, businesses and homes.

Dr Solana initially studied the impact of volcanic eruptions on communities and the importance of communications during volcanic emergencies. This led to improved understanding and relationships between policymakers, scientists and members of the public and the creation of more inclusive advisory groups.

We found throughout the years that all the research that we have been doing, all the advances, weren’t really translating into much for the people on the ground, the everyday life of people on villages around any islands.

Dr Carmen Solona, Reader in Volcanology and Risk Communications

The goal of these advisory groups is to improve the safety of populations through better communication, decision-making and application of the research.

Devastating lessons from Hurricane Maria

The University has a long-standing partnership with Dominica, and it is here where the multidisciplinary team Dr Solana is part of next turned their attention. In 2017, the category 5 hurricane Maria devastated the island. Many lost their lives, and much housing and infrastructure were left beyond repair. In the wake of the devastation, there was much to be learned:

We're looking at the slopes, we're looking at the landscapes and how it has evolved – the landslides, debris flows, how all of that moved down the rivers to the sea, which areas were more damaged and why.

Dr Carmen Solana, Reader in Volcanology and Risk Communications

Dr Solana believes it is also important to understand the motivations and misconceptions of vulnerable communities, especially those in coastal areas, as they are more likely to suffer catastrophic damage following storm-related landslides and floods.

She says that hazard maps, planning and a connection between academics, practitioners and communities are essential in preventing weather events from becoming disastrous.

Implementing research in real homes and communities

In addition to improved communication systems, other multidisciplinary projects she is part of currently are looking at how structures can be built to stand increasingly intense weather conditions. For example, in the Caribbean, where they are looking at different shapes of buildings.

There has been- I would say in the last 20 years but really in the last ten… a real push for all of us to collaborate together to create better results for the people.

Dr Carmen Solana, Reader in Volcanology and Risk Communications

Dr Solana is personally moved by the people she meets working around the world in her research. To her, it is fundamental that the purpose of academic research is not lost in translation. She says that effective systems of education and communication need to be in place to ensure cutting-edge science can positively impact human life.

Episode transcript:

John Worsey: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. Our interviews bring you some world-changing ideas and ask the big questions because research taking place here at Portsmouth is changing the world.

John Worsey: Around the world, communities and villages thrive within reach of active volcanoes, life-threatening natural events and unstable weather systems. In many of these places, life has continued for generations in spite of the risks. And yet when the events arise, the effects can be devastating. I spoke to Dr Carmen Solana who researches hurricanes and lava flow and helps island communities to become safer by working hand in hand with them on research.

Carmen Solana: I'm mainly working on two strands. One is the communication aspect. And we found that throughout the years that all the research that we have been doing, all the advances weren't really translating into much for the people on the ground, the everyday life of people in villages around any islands.

John Worsey: Carmen's work is already being applied to real-life emergency planning in the Canary Islands.

Carmen Solana: Part of my new research is an effort to see how to communicate these signs, make it useful for emergency plans, for schools, for informing people better and make them understand better where they live and also react better in case of a future emergency.

John Worsey: After growing up on the volcanic island of Tenerife, Carmen is very motivated to work with policymakers to make a difference to the lives of people on small islands just like hers.

Carmen Solana: There has been a big movement, and I think that is a big effort to have impact, real impact on people, on policy, science to produce changes in society that are going to be positive, that are going to really help people live better lives and safer lives. And I think, probably, it was the nature of research and probably also there used to be a disconnect between science and academia and the policymakers and maybe civil protection and everybody were very siloed into their own disciplines. There has been, I would say, in the last 20 years, but really in the last five years, there is a real push for all of us to collaborate together to create better results for the people.

John Worsey: And this people-first approach seems to have brought the importance of research home. In the face of ever more dramatic weather events and changing climatic conditions, Carmen's work has been met with more support from policymakers than ever before. But how did her journey to making a difference begin? To start with, she researched volcanoes.

Carmen Solana: At some point, there was an emergency, one of the volcanic islands in the island of a El Hierro. And we were called and I was speaking to the civil protection press officer, there is all this information, what can happen? So that was just sort of little things, like, oh, think that there are lots of tourists. Maybe you need to-- any information needs to be there in different languages. It looks absolutely obvious, but because of it is, in that case, it was a Spanish institution. It was very much geared towards the villagers, the locals.

John Worsey: Local news for local people.

Carmen Solana: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. There was this fear that, of course, it could create panic and then loss of revenue from tourists. But also there was quite a lot of disagreements and problems between scientists and the civil protection. There weren't-- the information that the civil protection needed wasn't coming from the scientists.

John Worsey: Despite disagreements to begin with, Carmen's research into volcanoes made having an advisory group in place essential. Soon, she realised that this approach could also translate to other majorly disruptive natural events.

Carmen Solana: Portsmouth has been working with the island of Dominica for more than a decade. We have been sending some of our master's students and undergraduate students to do dissertations. And we have also got some good projects working there. Because of that, we understand very much of the island. And we have a PhD student that is just finishing that has been working on the perception of different hazards from schoolchildren as they progress. So it's a longitudinal study. And as they go, they're going through their education, how their perception of how vulnerable they are to different hazards changes. And he has been going for seven years to different schools. So he's well known. All the teachers know him. So when Hurricane Maria hit the island, we had many surveys, both physical geography of the landscape and the bridges and the infrastructure and social ones. So we could make a comparison and really see how things have changed afterwards. And for example, we are indirectly advising on the reconstruction that is happening because naturally, after a disaster, people just want to reconstruct very quickly.

John Worsey: Carmen and her team had great relationships with decision-makers on the island of Dominica after years of working on projects there. So when Hurricane Maria arrived, they were well placed to advise on how to build back better.

Carmen Solana: So what is being built back the same and what is being built better and how to encourage these more resilient structures to natural hazards and a better future? We're looking at the slopes. We're looking at the landscapes and how it has evolved, the landslides, debris flows, how all of that moved down the rivers to the sea. Which areas were more damaged and why? What did people understand and what do people understand now? And we found, for example, a great disconnect between what they thought happened in hurricanes. So in hurricanes, you, of course, you have the very strong winds, but also you have quite heavy rainfall. And that rainfall is going to saturate the slopes, it's going to produce landslides and blocks. It's going to also produce flooding. The wind is going to push the sea towards the coast. And also the pressures on the hurricane is going to lift a bit the sea. So you're going to have a very strong, what is it called a storm surge into the coastlines. So while the storm surge in the case of Dominica wasn't very important, the other processes were very important. And yet talking to people around there were saying, gosh, and we were hit by two different disasters. First, we were hit by the wind and then by the flooding, as if there were these disconnected processes. Which was very interesting. They related hurricanes with very strong winds and sometimes with heavy rainfall. But they didn't make the connection of the rainfall, the landslides, the debris moving throughout the rivers, producing a lot of destruction of all the flooding. They didn't connect the two things.

John Worsey: But working so closely with communities makes it hard to remain detached from the realities of how weather events can devastate people's lives and livelihoods.

Carmen Solana: Dominica was heart breaking. Just seeing the amount of destruction. I had been in there in July and the hurricane occurred in September, so three months before. People in Dominica are lovely, the loveliest people. And I met the lady and we exchanged WhatsApp's and we were chatting. A really lovely lady. And suddenly she lost everything. She was in there with her son, single mum, living in a hut that had survived. And it was like that. It was most of the people. And you think, you know, there must be something we can do, we can do better than what we have done. And it was really motivating. And even now with no writing proposals and you're working for hours and hours every day, you think about that and you say this is going to finish for me. I'm in a nice, warm house.

John Worsey: Yes.

Carmen Solana: You know, this is for the people that don't have this luxury. So I'm sure we can do better. So so, yes, it's a great motivation, just sort of being able to fill in that with knowledge. And you can help people.

John Worsey: Yeah.

John Worsey: As Carmen observed, Dominican residents hadn't all related hurricanes to landslides. And so her research was able to help connect the chain of events. She told us how this gives islands like Dominica and Tenerife the onus to focus on the coastal areas that are most vulnerable.

Carmen Solana: The majority of the people on islands live in the coast because it's where most of their resources are, and especially in very rugged islands like, for example, the Canary Islands, Tenerife. If you see the majority of the population are in coast. You have the tourism and you have the harbours and you have the fishing. You have a lot of industry and resources in the coastline. So the coast is something very important to look at these sort of areas where different hazards converge and how to try to reduce all of that. Things are changing, and because of that, I think there is a need to rethink how we do things because climate change. The sea level is going to rise so areas that were previously safe they are not going to be safe anymore.

John Worsey: Climate change is bringing new experiences and new areas of study for scientists. Carmen explained more about how this might affect all of us.

Carmen Solana: Climate scientists are showing that the numbers of hurricanes is not going to change, but the intensity is going to change. So what previously might have been a couple of tropical storms and category one hurricane, now you might have a couple of category two hurricanes and one category four or five, very destructive, top category four hurricane. So I think we need to adapt to these new circumstances. Of course, we want to try to reverse all the damage that is being done to the planet. But while this happens or if this happens, we need to do something about the present. And that's one of the areas in which we are working. So not only understanding better the impacts of these very large events that are going to become more frequent, but also inform better plans to build on safer areas, infrastructure where to place it so it doesn't get continuously destroyed. What people can do, maybe where shelters should be placed, what people must do in the future.

John Worsey: Food for thought, but some people in some locations are further ahead in this kind of planning than others.

Carmen Solana: We have a project on Brazilian house in two hurricanes.

John Worsey: Oh right. Great.

Carmen Solana: So we're looking at how to build better houses within, obviously, the culture of maintaining your own identity. But how can maybe even the shape of a house can help it not to be damaged. In these islands against hurricanes, they recommend these sort of brackets and nails and so on, which with Category five hurricanes work to an extent. I mean, I've met some ex-pats living in Dominica that have actually invested a lot and they had all the right things on the house, on the brackets, for the hurricane and the roof blew off and part of the house like everybody else's. So, yes, talking to the architects, they were saying, well, actually, Formula 1s go at huge speeds and the cars don't fly away.

John Worsey: Yes. Yes.

Carmen Solana: There are shapes that are going to keep things bound. And we thought, wow, of course, we have thought about that. And this is what we were talking about all these disciplines need to stick to each other instead of being siloed because there are different things that they have that would be really useful for altogether to create a safer environment.

John Worsey: So communities and researchers joining together to build a bigger picture is key in implementing safer practices.

Carmen Solana: All of this has been a very long trajectory and unfortunately trajectory in which disasters created or in which lack of communication contributed to really very large numbers of deaths, opened the eyes of a lot of people saying, look, the science was in there, the hazard maps were in there, but they didn't know. The communities didn't know, the planners didn't know. So what's the point of all of us knowing? By us, I say, the academics knowing.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Carmen Solana: If the practitioners don't. If their communities don't. Being able to use it. It's something practical for them, something that at some point and that's I always thought, you know, there is a lot of effort on all of these. But if at some point it saves one life, it's all worth it, isn't it? And hopefully, many more or helps people just live safer. It saves a lot of grief. It saves a lot of destruction.

John Worsey: And as well as communities listening to and joining up with researchers, Carmen told us that teams of researchers working together can really make the difference in these kinds of circumstances.

Carmen Solana: When you go to the field, you look at all the needs that society has. And then when you come back to university and you were doing your everyday life of teaching and so on, you go to meetings, you meet different people with different specialities, and you just connect it and you say, actually, you know, I have done this. And you know, we work in Dominica and they say, oh, really I have worked in Brazil and there were similar problems. But we solve those problems in these-- with these techniques. Or would you like to? Shall we try to get some funds to be able to apply those techniques into this context or for a different problem that is a network problem, maybe not a social problem? And that's how science I think it is advancing these days, this sort of collaboration, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations that are vital to get good results. For us, it enriches everybody.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Carmen Solana: Because if I learn every day is a bit boring to be only the teacher. You also want to learn. You also want to learn something every day and mixing with people with different knowledge and expertise. It always discovers new things.

John Worsey: But most important to Carmen and her team is making a real difference in vulnerable places like Dominica. And that means building trust with the people they're working with.

Carmen Solana: When we were in Dominica, I visited someone, one of the academics on the island. He's a historian. And I went to talk to him and he said, you one more. We get people like you come every year.

John Worsey: Right.

Carmen Solana: And whatever is the new-- is the new colonialism. You come for they're struggling to leave you.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Carmen Solana: You move forward, you move on in your careers and your whatever. And people in here don't gain anything.

John Worsey: Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. You can find out more about the work of Dr Solana and her team, as well as our other projects, by going online to port.ac.uk/research.

John Worsey: If you want to share your thoughts on this programme, you can follow us on social media using the hashtag Life Solved. Next time...

Richard Teeuw: A lot more of the Apollo material was realised may have formed because of huge energetic meteorite impacts and big melt sheets. So molten rock sitting basically on the lunar surface after the impact of it. And that could have had a much bigger control on the geology of the Earth than we realised previously.

John Worsey: Make sure you subscribe in your podcast app to get every episode of Life Solved automatically. And please do tell us what you think with a review and rating if you get a moment. From the team in Portsmouth, thanks for listening. We'll see you again next time.

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