Sayward Harrison of the University of South Carolina present on community resiliency in aftermath of South Carolina's 2015 flooding. Photo by Natalie McGill/courtesy The Nation's Health

Sayward Harrison of the University of South Carolina presents on community resiliency in the aftermath of South Carolina’s 2015 flooding. Photo by Natalie McGill/courtesy The Nation’s Health

When Hurricane Joaquin hovered over South Carolina in the fall of 2015 causing historic flooding, state residents — particularly in the Midlands region — had to quickly discover what they were made of.

In the midst of disaster, researchers from the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health saw an opportunity to see how residents acted and adapted to a life-changing event. They presented on their work during Monday’s Annual Meeting session “Response, Recovery and Resiliency: Understanding Public Health in Practice During and After the Flood of October 2015.”

Over 11 trillion gallons of water were dumped into the Midlands region of the state, said Heather Brandt, associate professor of health promotion, education and behavior at the Arnold School of Public Health.

“This is not something that’s becoming a 1,000-year flood,” Brandt said. “It’s becoming something far more routine and certainly climate change is playing a role in this.”

Social media played a large role in communicating the threat of floods, particularly from residents and media outlets, Brandt said. She and researchers examined tweets with the hashtag #SCFlood over four time periods, including 72 hours before Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, when residents were urged to leave areas at risk for flooding as well as the six months following the flooding from Oct. 15 through April 15. The most popular themes in tweets across all periods were about the natural environment, built environment and devastation.

Those connected on social media could glean information from Twitter about accessing FEMA assistance, resource donation, road closures and shelter availability. Access to this information contributed to the resiliency of affected residents.

“I had never seen so much bottled water in my life,” Brandt said. “We saw a lot of community resiliency coming forward and demonstrating support. People relying on each other, people visiting to play games with kids at the shelters, having shelters where people could bring family pets, not just dogs and cats.”

Communication was critical for response and recovery and crucial to residents building resiliency during and after the crisis, said Sayward Harrison, who studied community resilience during the flooding for the University of South Carolina’s SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality.

Harrison defined community resiliency as the “capability of a community to draw upon its individual, collective and institutional resources and competencies to cope with, adapt to and develop from the demands, challenges and changes encountered before, during and after disaster.”

In interviews of nearly 40 residents affected by the floods, Harrison brought up examples of that definition in action. Those included identifying a Spanish-speaking TV reporter in the Midlands region who could translate emergency messages to Hispanic residents, such as boil water advisories and stories of residents in affected neighborhoods who knew where vulnerable residents, such as seniors, lived so resources could be directed to them.

Another part of resiliency is post-traumatic growth — the change that comes as a result of trauma that involves developing a “new normal,” Harrison said.

“We’re thinking of ways we can build a stronger community,” Harrison told attendees. “People are used to the way things were but it’s good to have change.”