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Southern Miss Geographers Studying Impact of Hurricanes in Central America

See Similarities, Differences with Katrina

Contact Christopher Mapp (601) 266-4497

HATTIESBURG -- Inhabitants of Third World nations may be better suited to cope with a natural disaster in some ways than their industrialized counterparts, say scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Two geographers who spent their summer studying how hurricanes affect the people of the Miskito Coast in Central America say similar patterns emerge between cultures after a catastrophe. However, because their lifestyles are not as dependent on modern amenities, agrarian cultures tend to better handle inconveniences that could prove life-threatening in the industrialized world.

“You see the same patterns both here and there,” said geography professor Dr. David Cochran, referring to the people affected in the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina and those of the remote Miskito Coast area in Honduras and Nicaragua. “People will often look to religion after a disaster, and some may think it happened as a result of their being ‘bad.’ As humans, we try to find the logic in a hurricane or make order out of what amounts to a random statistical occurrence.”

But while primitive societies may be more dependent on volunteerism and international aid for long-term recovery, in the period immediately after a disaster, their ability to live off the land helps them survive where industrialized nations often suffer.

“What are just amenities there are considered essentials here, like ice and air conditioning. If those things had continued to be deprived to Americans post-Katrina, people could have started dying. In the Miskito Coast, at the very worst the people could hop in their boats and catch fish in the rivers to survive,” Cochran said.

Dr. Cochran and Dr. Carl “Andy” Reese began a two-year, $107, 576 grant project this summer funded by the National Science Foundation.

Combining their areas of expertise -- physical and cultural geography -- the duo is first producing a long-term record of hurricanes in the region, dating back thousands of years. The team will then construct an oral history and mental maps of the most recent hurricanes, drawn from the local inhabitants’ personal accounts and memories collected this summer.

“This research will have direct relevance at the local, national and international levels and will assist with public education, awareness and institutional planning for future events,” Cochran said.

Reese began the process by taking sediment cores from the coastal lakes on the Miskito Coast. These sediment samples will allow him to read the “paleohurricane record” from the area.

“As hurricanes make landfall, their winds and corresponding storm surge carry sand from the beach and deposit it in the interior lagoons,” Reese said. “In the sediment core, you can find these over-washed sand layers, which will give you a good idea of the frequency of hurricanes over the past centuries. The question is if you find a sand layer that is three inches thick, how do you determine the magnitude of the hurricane and the impact it had on the people?”

That’s where Cochran and the local inhabitants come in. Using the indigenous population as guides, Cochran visited coastal settlements and took oral histories from witnesses who survived hurricanes in the last three decades. Their input is helping Reese and Cochran interpret the magnitude of these meteorological phenomena.

“For example, we know the size of Hurricane FeFe in 1973, which was a Category 3. If it left a five-inch sand layer, we can talk to residents and find out how a hurricane of this magnitude affected the people and how far inland it penetrated and what it did to property and crops,” Reese said. “This will establish a modern analog for hurricane magnitude.”

Cochran, who speaks fluent Spanish, conducted town-hall style meetings with the local inhabitants to record their versions of history. “Although some of these hurricanes happened 25 years ago, it affected their livelihoods, so they remember specifics very well,” Cochran said.

“My research is more the human side -- how does it affect daily life, what do they think and do during these hurricanes,” he continued. “This region is very isolated and the economy is land-based. Most of the people make a living by hunting and fishing, but there are also rich people with commercial ties who have boats that cost tens of thousands of dollars. I’m interested in finding out who benefits and who suffers from a hurricane?”

Reese and Cochran are hoping their findings can enlighten not only the scientific community, but also those in harm’s way.

Central America’s coastal areas are regularly devastated by hurricanes. In 1998, for example, Hurricane Mitch killed more than 10,000 and caused about 10 billion in damage to Honduras, Nicaragua and neighboring Caribbean countries.

“By providing information on hurricane risks and traditional response mechanisms, this study will directly help inhabitants in their efforts to manage and plan for future environmental disasters in this isolated region of Central America,” Reese said.

About The University of Southern Mississippi

The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at


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Last updated: 01/06/06

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