Researchers provide valuable lessons for communities serving displaced persons after disasters

“In the wake of one of the deadliest wildfires in California history, a fire which destroyed a whole town, it is extremely important that we gather to learn how communities can most effectively respond to those displaced in the aftermath of disaster,“ stated Bedrosian Center Executive Director, Aubrey Hicks in welcome remarks to those gathered on November 15, for the Symposium on Population Migration and Repatriation Following Major Disasters.

Focusing on a comparison between Hurricane Katrina of 2005 and the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Accident following the Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, researchers examined migration and repatriation through several key disciplinary lenses. The symposium was sponsored by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, Kansai University, and hosted by the USC Bedrosian Center on Governance.

USC Price faculty members Adam Rose and Jonathan Eyer were joined by Shingo Nagamatsu, associate professor of Societal Safety Sciences at Kansai University, on a grant funded by the Japan Foundation. In addition to original research, the symposium featured some recently published (here and here) and ongoing research (here and here).

Professor Rose noted that “the discussions among panelists and the feedback received from the audience would be valuable to the completion of current and future research on the migration and repatriation of displaced persons following natural or man-made disasters.”

In the first of three sessions, Lori Peek, Director of the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, shared insights from her research, and that of others, on the well-being of Katrina migrants. Brigitte Waldorf, associate professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, discussed previous and ongoing research on migration and return to New Orleans following Katrina. Professor Shoji Tsuchida of Kansai University, closed the session by summarizing his research on migration and mental health effects following the Fukushima accident.

The second session focused on the economic considerations affecting communities and displaced persons in deciding whether to return to an area in the aftermath of disaster. Professor Eyer examined economic factors that most influenced the choice of destinations of migrants from Fukushima. Professor Nagamatsu presented research in collaboration with professors Rose and Eyer on repatriation to Fukushima in recent years, based on a unique survey of more than 4000 former residents of Fukushima prefecture. The final presentation was by Professor Kenji Koshiyama of Kansai University, who focused on the financial status of Fukushima evacuees.

The third session addressed population displacement in practice. Mayor of Nahara Town in the Fukushima Prefecture, Yukei Matsumoto, discussed the challenges and responses of dealing with nuclear radiation and attracting migrants back to their home. Professor Ryan Alaniz, associate professor of Social Sciences at Cal State San Luis Obispo, shared his research on population migration and the reestablishment of community following disasters in Central America. USC Thomas Rivera Center Director, Roberto Suro, concluded with a general look at global migration in relation to disasters.

Adam Rose, Lori Peek, Shingo Nagamatsu, and Jonathan Eyer, closed the symposium with a wrap-up session focusing on lessons learned and thoughts for future research. Professor Peek underscored the importance of establishing a long-term, multidisciplinary research. “The movement of disaster affected people represents one of the greatest challenges of our time,” Peek noted, underscoring that “it is critical that research, practice, and policy communities work together alongside the most affected people to improve our response to post-disaster migration.” Professor Nagamatsu agreed and stressed “the importance of a policy study to address the issue of ‘policy lags’, which are often eminent in the disaster recovery process.”

Professor Eyer noted that, “Disaster migrants from both New Orleans and Fukushima tended not to move very far after the disaster, raising the risk that subsequent disasters in the region could leave them further victimized. There were some people who moved great distances to avoid disaster risks but these weren’t always the people who suffered the most in the initial event.”

Some lessons derived from the symposium with regard to future research and policy include:

  • Disaster recovery is not necessarily complete until the well-being of displaced persons has been restored to the extent possible.
  • Forced migration, repatriation, and resettlement would likely reduce the welfare of people affected by disasters. Individual decisions should be respected as much as possible, while also recognizing the importance of reestablishing social networks and ties.
  • Communities that receive large numbers of displaced persons after disaster may have to rethink policy decisions related to affordable housing, school re-entry, and employment assistance.
  • Some people have more resources or capacity to respond to disasters than most of the population and will move to perceived safety even when their personal damages are not high.
  • Age is a deciding factor in repatriation, the older population tends to return to the post-disaster community more often while younger populations relocate to cities.
  • Most people do not move very far after disasters, as the desire to stay in close proximity to a former home, workplace, or school, for example, drives post-disaster decision making. This means, however, that if disasters are geographically correlated, disaster migrants are likely to suffer again.

Research can help assess the well-being of displaced populations as well as their motivations to return. This information can be valuable in policy decisions relating to improving conditions in the home location and providing inducements to return or stay in the new location.

For videos of the panels and more on the symposium, go to the Symposium website.