Postdoctoral Research Associate at Brown University

Following the completion of my Ph.D. I am starting a postdoc at Brown’s Population Studies and Training Center under Dr. Elizabeth Fussell. Here, I will be working on two related projects: first, an analysis of post-Hurricane Katrina migration from New Orleans, LA, compared to migration outcomes from control communities; and second, an analysis of neighborhood attainment through migration comparing the aftermaths of the economic crisis and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

This builds on my work studying compounding hazards and post-disaster migration from the perspective of a City and Regional Planner, and my experience developing and using big datasets. It also gives me the opportunity to expand on my background in demographic research. Further, it puts me in contact with both researchers who I have admired for a long time, and emerging scholars who seem poised to make an impact in their respective fields.

Dissertation Defense, Submittal, Approval

It’s been a long journey – five years after moving cross-country to start the Ph.D. program at the Unviersity of North Carolina, and I’m finally closing it out. I cannot say more about how fortunate I have been during my time here – I’ve received opportunities, support, and guidance. I’ve made good friends, and found space to ride out the worst of the pandemic. And I think I produced some pretty good research at the same time.

My dissertation has been accepted by my committee and the graduate school. There is currently a restriction on viewing it online as I work to publish the papers at the core of it in peer reviewed journals. However, I would be happy to share it with those who are interested.

Abstract below:

In recent years, anthropogenic climate change has moved from a future concern to a current reality (Trenberth 2018). Now impacting every region on the planet, the effects of climate change are “widespread, rapid, and intensifying” (IPCC 2021). It is therefore pertinent to think of how we can adapt to a changing and more hostile world (Robinson et al. 2020). To this end, this dissertation focuses on environmental migration outcomes. This is accomplished with three distinct analyses.

The first study uses a multi-level, mixed-effects analysis on responses to two waves of a survey distributed across the Albemarle Pamlico Peninsula, North Carolina to consider how residents’ opinions and beliefs change as they are exposed compounding disasters. The findings show that saltwater intrusion, a slow-onset hazard, is associated with heightened risk perception; and that repeated hurricane exposure, saltwater intrusion, and heightened risk perceptions are associated with a greater acceptance of migration as an adaptive strategy.

The second study utilizes survival analyses on a novel dataset to track movement for all individuals with credit records in eastern North Carolina, considering compounding hazard exposure and pre-established vulnerability. It finds that the co-location of exposure and vulnerability is associated with more resilient migration patterns. However, State-level vulnerability remained constant as immigration into floodplains occurred at approximately the same rate as out-migration. This “vulnerability replacement” dynamic represents a missed opportunity to capitalize on the organic post-hurricane process of flood vulnerability reduction to achieve broader improvements.

The third study utilizes propensity score matching on another novel dataset to analyze post-buyout migration in Harris County, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey (2017) in contrast with a counter-factual group of residents who moved from similar areas within the same time frame without the benefit of federal support. The results show that buyout participants were less likely to move into a floodplain than members from our control group. Otherwise, however, buyout participants did not experience significantly different outcomes to those of non-buyout movers. The findings suggest that buyout programs have a limited influence on the established migration system within which they operate.

Article accepted for publication: International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters

Article entitled “Stuck in the Middle: The Challenges of Local Government Administration of Post-Hurricane Disaster Mitigation” was just accepted for publication at IJMED, led by my co-author Leah Campbell. It is a companion piece, in a sense, to our work on (Mis)trusting the process, in that it relies on much of the same data and also focuses on local government’s role in buyout programs. However, while the prior article focused on the role of trust between different levels of government and the residents, this one focuses on the precarious position of local government officials and how they have the greatest direct responsibility to their constituents, but often have the least power in the HMGP process.

Abstract below:

The use of buyouts as a climate change adaptation and risk reduction strategy has become increasingly common. Little research to-date, however, has examined the experience of local administrators of buyouts, despite the critical role they play as on-the-ground implementors. We interviewed 18 county and town officials from North Carolina who administered the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) following Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Our goal was to better understand the difficulties local administrators face in program implementation and the complexities of their relationship with other program stakeholders. We identified several recurring challenges facing these officials, including limited capacity; staff turnover, program delays; and a lack of flexibility, clarity, and communication. These issues make implementation challenging for administrators and strain their relationships with program participants and higher levels of government, in turn reducing program success and credibility. These results provide valuable insight into the perspective and experience of local administrators as HMGP implementers.

Article accepted for publication: Natural Hazards

The Natural Hazards journal just accepted a journal article I wrote with Leah Campbell, Mai Nguyen, and Gavin Smith for publication. This article is: “(Mis)trusting the Process: How Post-Disaster Home Buyout Processes Can Degrade Public Trust.”

I’m pretty excited about this article for a few reasons. First, I’ve been working on collecting and analyzing this data with the rest of my co-authors for awhile. Second, this is really my first formal foray into qualitative research methods. Third, it’s always exciting to get that email that it is accepted.

The abstract is below:

Federally funded housing buyout programs are the dominant method of government-supported retreat in the United States. Done correctly, buyouts can reduce pre-disaster vulnerability and facilitate post-disaster recovery. However, the success of buyout programs hinges on successful coordination and implementation by local administrators, who represent buyout participants, manage the buyout process at the community level, and connect them to state and federal resources. Because of this, trust between local administrators and the members of their communities is crucial for project participation and successful outcomes. While local administrators play a critical role in the buyout program, their role in building trust throughout the process has been an understudied aspect of the buyout literature. To address this gap, our paper examines the perceptions of local buyout administrators related to trust. This is done through a study of the conditions following Hurricane Matthew’s landfall in North Carolina, USA in 2016 using in-depth interviews with 18 local HMGP administrators, and an analysis of over 300 local newspaper articles to study how trust is built and lost in the buyout process. Our findings indicate that a lack of program clarity, unclear communication about the program’s guidelines across all levels of governments, and extended time frames deteriorated public trust in a manner that hindered program success and diminished program results.

Aerial of Kinston, NC in recent floods. From the FEMA Media Library

Hobbies: Drafting up a new board game

Board games are one of my favorite ways to ruin long standing friendships over theoretically benign competitions – just kidding (mostly). From the living room – I’ve built and razed cities, engaged in clear cutting forests for fun and profit, created endearing bird sanctuaries, lost space cargo to asteroids, and homesteaded on medieval farms. And now, to deal with dissertation stress, I’m making my own.

Tentatively titled: The Tragedy of the Commons, my board game is designed to push players to overuse common space in an attempt to secure victory before the ecosystem collapses. Here’s some early artwork of the process:

ABD: Dissertation Proposal Accepted

I have recently passed the final hurdle of getting to ABD before the actual final hurdle of getting a PhD: my dissertation proposal is accepted, and the real work begins.

My dissertation focuses on environmental migration and displacement, which, because there are so many variations on the definition, I will define them in full here:

Environmental Migration: The movement of persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, as a result of a disaster, or in order to avoid the impact of an immediate and foreseeable natural hazard, are forced to leave their places of habitual residence, or choose to do so, for a period of greater than three months, and who move within or outside their country of origin or habitual residence.

Environmental Displacement: The movement of persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, as a result of a disaster, or in order to avoid the impact of an immediate and foreseeable natural hazard, are forced to leave their places of habitual residence, or choose to do so, for a period no greater than three months, and who move within or outside their country of origin or habitual residence.

The first paper, tentatively entitled, “Increased movement and decreased discretion: migration in relation to major disaster events and risk exposure,” analyzes how repeated disasters can synergistically impact migration. The broad goal of this paper is to understand how the intersection of disaster exposure and risk affect migration destinations.

The second paper, tentatively titled “Do Floodplain Buyouts Mitigate Individual Risk?: Comparisons between Buyouts and Post-Disaster Migration” builds on Paper 1 and seeks to explain the relationship between federally-financed floodplain buyouts and retreat as a risk reduction strategy.

Paper 3, tentatively titled “Changing Perspectives After the Storm: A pre-post evaluation Unfortunately, while the data used in Papers 1 and 2 will allow novel analysis of Hurricane-driven migration as influenced by vulnerability at a household-scale, it will not facilitate examination of the risk perspectives or personal conditions that residents use when deciding to leave their pre-storm homes. Therefore, building on the patterns studied in Paper 1 and 2, Paper 3, tentatively titled “Changing Perspectives After the Storm: A pre-post evaluation of risk perception and adaptive decision making,” delves deeper into the explanations used by the residents’ themselves for engaging in adaptation decisions (i.e., migrating or protecting in situ) after disaster exposure.

Conceptualization for migration patterns reactive to multiple hazard events

For this work, I have the privilege of the support from an absolutely wonderful committee. The chair is my advisor, Dr. Todd K. BenDor, who’s work focuses on the environmental implications of urban development and land use regulations. Dr. Phil Berke offers support and expertise on planning analysis for disaster resilience. Dr. Miyuki Hino offers expertise on climate change adaptation, with specialized knowledge of managed retreat more specifically. Dr. Elizabeth Frankenberg is borrowed from outside the department, and is a sociologist who has studied migration and adaptation in response to natural hazards, and will help keep me honest with my demographic analysis. Finally, providing additional expertise from outside of UNC, Dr. Alex Greer, has done incredible work on outcomes for buyout participants that has inspired my own interest in this area.

Book review accepted for publication: Journal of Planning History

My book review on The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent, by Dilip da Cunha, was accepted for publication by the Journal of Planning History. I had a great time reading this book. And I was exciting to think of it from the perspective of planning history, with considerations for how we are living in an era defined by anthropogenic climate change.

Geographisches Institut (Weimar, Germany), 1966. Image reprinted in The Invention from the David Rumsey collection

Article Accepted for Publication: Climatic Change

A paper I have been working on with Dr. Todd BenDor has just been accepted for publication by Climatic Change. It is my second, first author publication in a peer reviewed journal.

This paper uses a SEM model to analyze results from an in-depth survey distributed in 2017 to better understand how residents of the Albemarle Pamlico Peninsula, NC, which is highly vulnerable to climate change, are viewing adaptation decisions. Our results show that residents who are concerned about future trends are more open to moving away from their community. We find that an optimistic perception of flooding over the past two decades (i.e. flooding has gotten better, storms have gotten milder, etc.) is associated with reluctance to engage in protective measures generally. We also found that a resident’s pessimistic perception of past events, absent of concerns about the future, is correlated with a greater openness for in situ adaptation measures.

Our findings push forward the understanding of the factors that prompt resident willingness (and similarly, unwillingness) to consider taking measures to adapt to climate change. Understanding the process that leaves residents willing to retreat or protect themselves is critical to governments’ ability to mitigate long-term risk. Moreover, this information is critical to informing the strategies that local, state, and federal governments use in approaching and encouraging individuals to take proactive measures to mitigate increasing climate risk to their properties, livelihoods, and health.

These findings, and results from future studies, can be used to inform communication strategies that may prompt residents to take precautionary measures to reduce their personal risk, as well as the risk of their communities and the state at large. The abstract for the article is below:

The growing cost of climate-driven coastal impacts requires an improved understanding of how coastal populations engage with adaptation decisions. While many studies explore factors driving coastal adaptation, generally, few evaluate how residents consider relationships between in situ, protective adaption vs. retreat from at-risk areas. What is the relationship between residents’ exposure, perceptions of climate trends, and concerns about the future? How do these factors influence attitudes openness to different adaption strategies? Are these strategies considered to be progressive – where protection is indexed to minor threats and retreat occurs when protection measures fail – or are these dichotomous choices? We apply structural equation modeling to evaluate these decision pathways using a 2017 household survey in North Carolina’s (USA) Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula (n=147). Our results reveal that residents commonly view protection and retreat as mutually exclusive, rather than progressive, methods for reducing risk, and that their preferences are correlated with different understandings of climate threats.

Paper Presentation & First Virtual Conference

Differential Residential Perspectives on In-Situ Protection and Retreat for Climate Adaptation

The growing cost of climate-driven coastal impacts requires an improved understanding of how coastal populations engage with adaptation decisions. While studies explore factors driving coastal adaptation, generally, few evaluate how residents consider relationships between in situ protective adaptation versus retreat from at-risk areas. This presentation addresses that gap by posing and responding to the following questions: What is the relationship between residents’ exposure, perceptions of climate trends, and concerns about the future? How do these factors influence attitudes and openness to different adaptation strategies? Are these strategies considered to be progressive – where protection is indexed to minor threats and retreat occurs when protection measures fail–or are these dichotomous choices? In this study structural equation modeling is applied to evaluate these decision pathways using a 2017 household survey in North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula (n=147). The results reveal that residents commonly view protection and retreat as mutually exclusive, rather than progressive methods for reducing risk, and that their preferences are correlated with different understandings of climate threats.

The Virtual Conference:

For the past 45 years, the Natural Hazards center at University of Colorado Boulder has held a conference on Natural Hazards Research. This year was a little different. Because of the ongoing COVID crisis, the conference moved online.

This year, the conference’s theme was Active Hope. It was a response to the major disasters of the past few years, which has seen record breaking fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. This asks: How can we maintain hope in this era of environmental extremes? I don’t know if I got the answer to that question through this conference, but I saw a good spread of great research.

The challenges we face can be difficult even to think about. Climate change, the depletion of oil, economic upheaval, and mass extinction together create a planetary emergency of overwhelming proportions. Active Hope shows us how to strengthen our capacity to face this crisis so that we can respond with unexpected resilience and creative power. Drawing on decades of teaching an empowerment approach known as the Work That Reconnects, the authors guide us through a transformational process informed by mythic journeys, modern psychology, spirituality, and holistic science. This process equips us with tools to face the mess we’re in and play our role in the collective transition, or Great Turning, to a life-sustaining society.

Active Hope Synopsis

Article accepted for publication: Environmental Science and Policy

Article entitled “From abstract futures to concrete experiences: How does political ideology interact with threat perception to affect climate adaptation decisions?”, co-authored with Sophie Kelmenson, Todd K. BenDor, and Danielle Spurlock, has been accepted for publication with Environmental Science & Policy! Abstract below:

Climate change forecasts predict impacts that will increasingly expose coastal residents to existential risks, necessitating aggressive adaptation. While the polarization of climate change attitudes in American politics represents a barrier to climate adaptation efforts, it is not well-understood how political ideology mediates how individuals connect the abstract concept of “climate change” to concrete experiences with environmental risks. Understanding this link in the context of adaptation decision-making is important, as the effects of many, household-level adaptation efforts compound over space and time, affecting community flood risk and vulnerability. This paper asks, how do political ideologies interact with threat perception to affect coastal climate adaptation decisions? We frame this analysis using the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) and Protection Motivation Theory (PMT). Using responses from a survey of residents (n = 164) in North Carolina’s (USA) Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula, we examine how measures of residents’ subjective norms, threat-appraisals, and self-efficacy influence their intent to retreat or topographically adapt. We find that, despite political polarization around climate change, generally, when given concrete examples of risk, respondents’ political beliefs appear unrelated to their plans to protect their property and livelihoods.

Ghost forests from the study area, the Albemarle Pamlico Peninsula