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Community Conversations: Autonomous Adaptation with Brianna Castro

November 3, 2020
Susanna Pho, CFM

In Community Conversations, we talk with practitioners and researchers who work in floodplain management and adaptation. This month: Brianna Castro, a doctoral candidate in Harvard University's Department of Sociology.

Welcome! Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

I'm a PhD candidate in Sociology at Harvard University. My research focuses on the impacts of climate change and adaptation. Rather than looking at adaptation from the municipal, state, or federal level, I look at the everyday adaptation that people make in their lives, who are already facing and dealing with climate hazards. Before this, I did a lot of work in migration research. I moved from studying migration decisions, especially migration decisions in response to environmental hazards, to the full spectrum of climate-change adaptation. Right now I'm located in North Carolina but I'm also gathering data on the coast of North Carolina.

Your dissertation research is comparative research using North Carolina as one context?

Right. Often with research on climate-change adaptation or the impacts of flooding, people focus on one case or one place because that's a way to dive deep and see how people are responding to the impacts or hazards in a single context. I have spent a few years now collecting data in multiple sites that are very different. My research asks: how can we compare across completely different contexts politically, socially, economically, and see what holds in the way people adapt.

My research is rooted in three places: I have three years of data from rural Colombia in South America, looking at how farmers adapt to severe drought and shifting seasonal patterns due to climate change. I have multiple rounds of data from Lagos, Nigeria, looking at chronic flooding and erosion on the coast and how settlement residents adapt to those climate hazards. I'm also looking now in North Carolina at sea-level rise and sunny-day-chronic flooding and how that's affecting homeowners and residents and affecting decisions and costs to their daily lives.

I know you're still in the writing and analysis process, but what are some of your preliminary findings from that work?

You might think, looking at places with hazards that are so different, that the way people adapt and think about climate change would be very different. So far it's not. It's very similar. To me, that's a huge finding: rural dwellers in Colombia, without access to electricity or running water, are adapting and thinking about climate hazards in a very similar way as second-home property owners on the Outer Banks of North Carolina or informal settlement dwellers in Nigeria.

People tend to stay in place as much as they can rather than migrate right away. I'm finding that the more times a major disaster or a major flood or a major failed season due to drought occurs, the more time that people stay, the less likely they are to ultimately move and the more likely they are to continue to try to adapt in place. That holds across all of my cases.

What are some of the decision-making factors that push people to leave early on?

I call people who leave early-on adaptive migrants, and that's because they look at the hazards and the resources that they have. They decide they can strategically move and will be better off by moving at the time that a hazard occurs. People who tend to do that share a few characteristics. They usually know a bit more about the climate hazard. Maybe they've kept up with the scientific knowledge, they've seen it before, or they know someone who's been through a more severe version of that hazard—a worse hurricane, flood, or drought.

They also are very well-resourced. This doesn't mean that we're talking about the 1% or the 10%, but they have enough resources to leverage savings or sell off property to strategically move before they absolutely have to. That means that when they get to their new destination, they're better off than if they moved after losing everything. They're able to set themselves up a bit better. 

In the context of North Carolina, have you seen a significant amount of resource sharing or knowledge sharing across individual households in areas that are prone to flooding?

Yes. There's a ton of resource sharing, actually. It's a very common topic of conversation, which was something that I didn't expect. In North Carolina, people tell me that they meet up with their friends for a monthly dinner and they talk about when the flooding will be so bad that they have to leave. They share these links to resources like Climate Central. They share information about where flooding is occurring. I think that is one way that people are able to manage in more extreme cases of chronic flooding, like you see on the Outer Banks.

I also think that sometimes in practitioner communities dealing with climate change hazards, we conceptualize of the issue as getting the right information (or the right data) to families. Sometimes I see in my work that it's less an issue of getting information about hazards to families, and more an issue of understanding what represents too much risk to them. Their notion of what "too much risk" constitutes is often very different from what we, as researchers and practitioners, might think of as too much flooding.

For the individuals that you've spoken with who are in the process of or have adapted in place, what strategies do they implement to do so?

Mostly people are making structural changes to their homes to adapt in place. You'll see, for example,  elevated air-conditioning units because residents are accommodating for frequent flooding. In these contexts, people raise up their air conditioning, they raise up anything else of value on the ground flood. People will build platforms to raise their washer and dryer units inside their house.

In the Southern Outer Banks, where there's more over-wash from the ocean, houses are often elevated but parking often isn't. People have started to build elevated platforms underneath their elevated homes so that they can drive their cars up a ramp four, six, or eight feet above ground level to protect their cars from flooding. You also see people changing the routes that they take to work or adjusting their business hours according to when they know there's going to be an astronomically high tide, or when they expect flooding because the water table and winds are high.

With farmers in Eastern North Carolina too, I've seen shifts in crops, shifts in planting seasons, shifts in what parts of their land they plant in because pollination levels are increasing/decreasing or because the water table is higher. Farmers are often the first to change their livelihood practices because weather and climate hazards are changing.

Have you seen any municipalities or local governments implementing strategies to support that decision-making that have worked well in the past?

In the Southern Bank Hatteras Island, the roads are often completely cut off for days at a time. That happened recently with Hurricane Teddy, which was way off-coast. But they have a very rich, deeply involved community resilience planning process. Residents seem particularly informed and they work together to think through different issues as a community more so than other places that I've been.

But really local residents and the people who I talk to aren't thinking that much about what's happening at the municipal or state level. Unless they've been directly informed of programs that they should be applying to, grant programs are not really on their radar. In fact, and this may be particular to the Outer Banks and Inner Banks region, people tend to be more likely to embody the mindset of "we've got it on our own". They might call on their neighbors before they're going to call on governance structures.

I'd love to zoom out and talk about your vantage point as a sociologist.  How do you think your training colors the work that you do and the data that you're able to gather?

As sociologists, we're really good at looking backward, examining current conditions, and analyzing social processes. Many sociologists tend to shy away from forward-looking, future-projecting work because it's very hard to do and it's less certain. I think that I have quite a bit to offer because I focus on social relations, social networks, social capital, the way people think about their lives from a broad lens, not looking at a single hazard event.

In climate adaptation work, buyout work, floodplain management work, we tend to think about property and assets. We think about homes or bank accounts as the factor governing analysis more so than the complex lives that people live. Approaching these problems by looking at communities and social networks gives us more insight into the choices that people make, the strategies that they have, and the programs that could support communities. Individually buying out properties is very different from relocating communities, for example, and it changes the way we approach the flooding problem.

How do you walk the line between being a researcher and an active participant in the context you're studying, as a resident of North Carolina?

I'm constantly learning how to walk this line because, on one hand, I'm actively doing research that is objective and scientific for publication in articles and book chapters. On the other hand, I deeply care about these issues and I'm concerned about communities. When I have the opportunity to influence decision or to share insights from my work in a policy-making process, I offer my observations up in ways that allow me to protect the confidentiality of the folks that I talk to.

How has your data gathering experience been?

I have to be very nimble and adaptive in my data-gathering strategies compared to what you might see in a big economics survey study or a big quantitative survey project. That gives me advantages because I'm able to combine different kinds of datasets. Rather than have a concrete design that doesn't shift, I use what's available and combine it in a way that's scientifically appropriate. These are constantly evolving questions and we need to be flexible to generate new information and new understandings of climate change and how it is impacting families.

Sometimes being adaptive in this way can be hard. For example, if I could get parcel-level flood data from FEMA, or a list of households that are going to be offered buyouts, that would enable me to talk to those families and understand how they're making decisions about whether to accept a buyout or not. That kind of data is really hard to obtain because agencies want to protect the confidentiality of families.

We often speak with practitioners who are interested in academic research, but don't necessarily know how best to interact with researchers. Do practitioners ever reach out to you?

I don't often experience practitioners reaching out to me, but I love that part of this work. The reason that I'm so excited to do this research is because I think that there's a deep knowledge that can be gained from in-depth field research that's hard to access if you don't have the time, the resources, or the kind of project that allows you to have that high-touch interaction with communities.

I've tried myself to get involved in different practitioner networks so that I can interact with climate scientists on one end and also practitioners in the adaptation space on the other. That's my favorite part of the PhD process right now: learning from folks who are trying to take these ideas that academics come up with and operationalize them. 

Thank you, Brianna! Any parting words?

I would just like to reiterate the point that the extreme strategies that I see for adapting to living with water, which people have done for centuries, just remind us that moving is not the first response people have. In fact, it's a very late response to flood risk. There are many, many things that happen before that, and they come at different costs. Whenever we're talking about flood risk, impact, policies, keeping that in mind will really help us work with and for communities.
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