Sea Grant Social Scientist to Explore Influence of Severe Weather on the Economically Disadvantaged 

Images from New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina are indelible in the nation’s consciousness. The 20-by-25-block area was home to some of the city’s more economically disadvantaged people, is located in a low-lying area and bore significant losses of life and property.

“The question is, why are the economically disadvantaged more likely to be affected by severe weather? Think about Katrina or other disasters and anecdotally there could be answers, but we want to get at the root of that question by using new communication and other tools to save lives and livelihoods,” said Deidre Peroff, Sea Grant’s social scientist, who joined the staff earlier this year.

She was describing a new project she’s engaged with along with Tim Halbach, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Sullivan, Wis. They are exploring how those who are in lower income brackets and live in Milwaukee get weather forecasts and warnings. They also want to track how this population responds to the news.

Halbach said, “Weather affects everyone, probably more so those who are in difficult situations. We, the National Weather Service, have a lot of ways to communicate to the high-end technical users who have computers, iPads and smart phones in front of them, but we don’t spend a lot of time assuring that everyone is getting the information that they need.”

Part of that assurance will begin with a review of U.S. census data on income by ZIP code to determine areas of the city ripe for further scrutiny and possible outreach and education. Within the larger context of Milwaukee’s economically disadvantaged community, Peroff and Halbach are considering whether or not they will narrow it more, perhaps to the elderly, homeless or certain ethnic clusters—reaching out to some or all of those groups.

The project’s approach is likely to combine both focus groups and surveys. There are, however, many hours of further planning before any kind of definitive path forward on conducting the project is set—the pair said they are in the “brainstorming phase right now.” Because the findings could likely be broadly applied, the researchers hope their work can prevent future tragedies such as what happened in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Sea Grant Wades Into Rising Water Levels-Bluff Stability Issue 

This year, Sea Grant has been leading an integrated assessment of changing Lake Michigan water levels and their impacts on the stability of coastal bluffs and shorelines. Water levels in the world’s fifth largest lake were below the long-term average from 1999 to 2013, but began to rise, and rise rapidly.

David Hart, assistant director for extension, has led the project. “The integrated assessment approach is well suited for complex and challenging issues such as bluff erosion. It embraces extensive public engagement and bridges natural science, social science and policy.”

The approach has involved public meetings in three of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan communities, attracting more than 140 people. Major themes that emerged at these very interactive meetings included the role of government regarding lake levels, collective action for bluff management, ravines, water diversion, industry interests and lake health.

Next up: the development and refinement of a list of potential policy alternatives and actions that property owners can take to address the integrity of coastal bluffs, ravines and shorelines. The list will reflect what was learned at the public meetings. It will also draw from local and regional experts on coastal engineering, geology, urban and regional planning, law, policy studies, ecology, landscape architecture and social science. The list was reviewed by local officials and the public at meetings in late October. That final report will be integrated with three other regional integrated assessments on variable water levels as funded by the Graham Institute at the University of Michigan.

Boat Landings Become a Base for Spreading the Gospel of Clean, Drain and Dry 

Summers along the Great Lakes are popular for recreating, including fishing and boating. In summer 2016 Sea Grant, in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, deployed eight Great Lakes watercraft inspectors to spread the word about preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species. Inspectors stressed the importance of cleaning, draining and drying boats before going into the water again.

Sea Grant contacted more than 6,000 people at Great Lakes boating ramps and inspected 3,073 boats. In addition to sharing messages, the educators demonstrated boat-cleaning techniques, providing visual reinforcement about how to remove plants and animals that could be transported and cause a lot of trouble in a new setting as they compete with native species for food and territory.

“This program provides education and positive reinforcement about the proper steps to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species,” said Titus Seilheimer, fisheries specialist. “Stopping invasive species from reaching other waters is much more efficient and cost effective than trying to deal with them when they arrive.”

Additionally, Sea Grant participated in the eighth annual 4th of July Landing Blitz, which resulted in the inspection of more than 10,000 boats and outreach to nearly 23,000 people. The blitz was possible due to the participation of citizen volunteers and staff from dozens of lake associations and lake districts; local, county and tribal governments; non-profit groups; scout troops; and businesses.

Sea Grant inspectors also assisted with a special study using an app on tablets to better gauge boater behavior in relation to invasive species. This innovative new approach could increase the efficiency of the overall inspection program by not relying on manual data entry from paper forms.

The Aquatic Sciences Center is the administrative home of the
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute & University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute.

©2011 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents