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Social Scientist View Gulf Oil Spill



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The social and psychological impact of the BP oil spill was guessed at early on, as lives were thrown into turmoil. Much like any disaster, this one would impact families and communities in profound ways, both immediately and long-term. Now the initial fears of the social impact are being expressed and monitored as the disaster enters its third month.

Communities most affected by the horrific scenes are thrown into turmoil. The rhythms and predictability of daily life are totally disrupted, adding to an already incredibly stressful situation. It affects everyone. Children are confused and anxious, parents are terrified as they watch their lives and livelihoods slip away and feel completely helpless. They are filled with fear and uncertainty as they line up for handouts of money and food, wondering how they will provide for their families when the handouts eventually stop.

Families always feel the stress of limited incomes, but this situation is so much worse. Most of these people have known only fishing for decades. What will they do now? These job losses in many cases are very different from the loss faced by wage earners. Many of these families are in debt for business-related expenses such as boats, fuel, gear, or a mortgage on a small business that is now defunct. Not only have they lost their income, they face staggering debt with no way to begin paying it off.

When paychecks stop family tensions quickly escalate into domestic violence. Children at risk will be placed in foster care while more offenders will be incarcerated. Both of these tragedies impact lives for decades and both put an incredible strain on state budgets. Alcohol and drug abuse will compound the problems and place added stress on law enforcement workers and courts. 

Many people are also grieving the loss of a way of life. People so intimately tied to the natural surroundings now being taken from them must certainly feel they are witnessing the slow death of a loved one. Grief combines with anger, frustration and a deep sense of injustice. As the weeks go by, it becomes too much for some to cope with. Seeing their world destroyed and their future bleak, some choose to end their lives.

Social support systems are strained already due to budget cuts from the last national crisis, the economic one. These agencies’ ability to help those suffering this kind of profound loss will be overwhelmed. More people will seek help just as public funds decrease.

With such widespread disruption, it is hard to turn to friends and families in neighboring towns because they are also affected. In most disasters, people usually can find temporary help from those who were not directly affected. This is not the case when a four-state area is impacted.

With so many jobs lost and revenues drastically impacted, the spiral will continue long after the oil finally stops flowing. The beaches and waters that once drew people from around the world will be perceived as tainted and polluted. Tourism was a major economic force for these four states. With that revenue source cut off, inland parts of these four states will suffer along with their fellow citizens along the Gulf.

Home values in many of these once-highly desirable areas were already depressed and will certainly see more sharp declines in the coming months and years. This, too, will impact state revenues through lower property tax collections, further diminishing the states' aiblity to provide for those in need.

Along with strained social service system, health services will feel the squeeze, too, as emotional and psychological stress leads to physical disease.

It is hard to imagine a catastrophe that undoes all social support systems as completely as this one has done. 

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