Environmental and Natural Resources Sciences
Professor Yvonne Everett had just finished spending 10 days at Sri Lanka's tropical coast. It was Dec. 26, 2004 and she had traveled away from the sandy beaches to her home at the island's interior. At approximately 1 a.m. an earthquake occurred off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The 9.1 trembler triggered an enormous tsunami — 100 feet high at some locations — that struck Sri Lanka and devastated the island's coastal regions.
"It was really eerie once people realized what had happened and the whole country went into an immediate response mode," Everett says. "It was also just incredibly depressing. There was so much loss of life and it seemed like everyone lost somebody they knew."
Everett made her way back to the coast and met up with her colleagues at the Neo Synthesis Research Center to help with immediate relief efforts. After the situation began to stabilize, the team started working with a community on Sri Lanka's east coast. With a grassroots approach, the group helped the community rebuild without much outside government influence.
"I was most concerned to see how strong their existing social capacity was and their ability to respond in this vacuum of government response," she says. "Then I thought about what would happen in our case here in the United States. My sense is that here we have this very strong reliance on a government response and we're not very well equipped to have responsibility at the local level."
The experience was a perfect illustration of a concept that Everett has studied for years: in the face of disaster human societies often come together, increasing social capital and creating greater cohesion. These types of connections, catalyzed by tragic events, allow for the development of more sustainable communities where people know each other, communicate often and learn together about the land they live on.
Everett is interested in examining the differences between grassroots and governmental responses to disasters in other realms as well. She researches fire safe councils in California, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the various council structures from the local to state level.
"It comes down to managing people, we don't manage the environment, we don't manage the forests, we manage human actions," Everett explains. "We need to make human actions as ecologically sophisticated as possible so they are sustainable and aren't taking away from the necessary functions of an ecosystem. And, we need to make sure we aren't taking away choices from future generations."