Climate Action research boosts communities’ resilience to natural disasters

Research boosts communities' resilience to natural disasters
Climate change is amplifying natural hazards. Three California Climate Action projects seek to buffer those risks by educating workers about disaster cleanup, planning for EV evacuations, and mapping soil liquefaction zones. Image: Generated by Stable Diffusion Web

By Guananí Gomez-Van Cortright

In 2022-23, the state of California allocated $100 million to the University of California to fund research grants supporting climate change resilience in communities across California. Three of the California Climate Action Seed Grant-funded research projects are investigating how communities can prepare for natural disasters, including how to protect the safety and rights of migrant workers involved in disaster relief, mapping how sea level rise is changing earthquake risks, and preparing evacuation routes to be effective for electric vehicles.

Protecting migrant workers providing disaster relief

As the Woolsey wildfire burned through Malibu in 2019, a homeowner asked a migrant worker to stay behind instead of evacuate. He breathed in smoke and stayed up through the night with a hose to protect his employer’s property, despite having no personal protective equipment or a way to evacuate.

“Workers’ health and their rights were not protected during those fires,” said Nancy Zuniga, workers’ health program director at the Los Angeles day laborer advocacy organization IDEPSCA. “A codified exclusion actually allows Cal-OSHA to not protect people doing domestic work in private homes.”

As climate change exacerbates wildfires, flooding, and rainstorms in California, cleanup has often fallen to migrant workers. This work is essential, often filling gaps where government disaster response is lacking. Many migrant day laborers and domestic workers have ended up working in natural disaster relief and recovery without training, proper equipment, or legal protections. 

“They’re often not prepared in any way to do this work, and really shouldn’t be asked to do those kinds of things,” said Kevin Riley, director of UCLA’s Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.

Currently, little is known about the conditions migrants face when hired for climate hazard work. Researchers led by Riley’s team and advocacy organizations such as IDEPSCA and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) plan to characterize this  employment sector for the first time. They are collaborating to gather data on migrant workers’ experiences in disaster response with funding from a $2 million UC Climate Action Grant. They will use that data to inform policy and outreach campaigns that both inform migrant workers about disaster work safety and protect them from dangerous conditions they may face.

“We need to better understand how these folks are being hired, what they’re being hired to do, what kind of hazards they are being exposed to, and what kind of potential strategies we could pursue to protect them as they are called on to respond to future disasters,” says Riley. 

Riley’s team plans to characterize the practice from several angles. One involves conducting focus groups and interviews with day laborers to obtain accounts of workers’ experiences. Another calls for environmental sampling, which will reveal any harmful substances workers may be exposed to. The team will also track worker health over time, and devise ways hiring sites and advocacy groups can protect and educate workers in the future. 

“I’ve been really excited to see the state investing in these kinds of projects,” says Riley. “This is an investment in a workforce that’s really critical to restoring and maintaining our communities.”

When sea level rise and earthquakes combine

The coastal town of Encinitas, north of San Diego, is home to critical infrastructure such as the Pacific Coast Highway, Amtrak rail lines, and a residential community. All are built on sandy soils likely to be saturated as sea level rises. In an earthquake, saturated soil can lose its strength and stiffness, temporarily behaving like a fluid in a process known as liquefaction. 

“Communities with sandy soils, at low elevation, where the ground is going to become wetter as sea levels rise are at risk,” said Scott Brandenberg, professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UCLA. 

As climate change pushes tides higher, it intensifies the risk of earthquake liquefaction in coastal communities like Encinitas. When soil liquefies, it can severely damage buildings, bridges, pipelines, gas lines, and other critical infrastructure.

Brandenberg and co-investigator Timu Gallien say a more comprehensive picture of coastal liquefaction hazards is needed. With a $517,000 Climate Action grant, they will use California Geological Survey (CGS) data and groundwater modeling to map where sea level rise threatens California’s coastal communities with soil liquefaction. These analyses, in turn, will inform mitigation strategies, updates to CGS hazard maps, and building codes. 

Liquefaction hazards can be very expensive to mitigate. They often involve compacting soil before construction, or retrofitting buildings to prevent collapse if saturated soils lose their structure. Once governments know which communities and structures are most vulnerable to liquefaction damage, Brandenberg hopes, they will fund efforts to prevent the worst outcomes.

“If you address these hazards up front, they end up costing a lot less,” said Brandenberg. “Ultimately, we’re trying to allocate public resources in the most efficient way possible.”

EV infrastructure for disaster evacuations

The historic rainstorms that pummeled California in 2023 forced thousands of Central Valley residents to evacuate ahead of floods. Most fled in gas-powered vehicles. But soon that scenario will be a relic of the past. The state’s Advanced Clean Cars regulations mandate that all vehicles sold in California must be electric by 2035. With more EVs on the road, communities will need new infrastructure to escape climate change-fueled natural disasters . For example, areas experiencing wildfires frequently have their power cut.  But if the grid is down, how will people charge their EVs to evacuate? 

“We have a lot of evacuations with internal combustion engine cars, but when it comes to EVs, I don’t think everyone is aware of the pitfalls,” said Ricardo de Castro, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UC Merced. 

Now, a UC research collaboration led by de Castro and funded by a $1.1 million Climate Action Grant will evaluate what kinds of infrastructure California communities will need to support electric vehicle evacuations. The results will help state and local governments prepare charging infrastructure and evacuation policies for a clean vehicle fleet. 

The project will use Mariposa and Merced counties as test cases. Graduate students at UC Merced, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz will gather and analyze data from both locations to identify lifesaving solutions. These include determining whether portable chargers are viable, identifying where backup power and EV charging stations are most critical, and developing maps and apps to help evacuees plan routes and locate charging sites along the way. Finally, the researchers will create fact sheets advising policy makers and local governments where to build charging and evacuation infrastructure.

“In California, there will be at least one time in your life where you will drive an EV, because that’s the direction that the state is going, and at some point you will be told to evacuate,” said de Castro. “We are building tools that, hopefully, our communities can use soon.”