Science AMA Series: Hi Reddit, I’m Jeremy Spoon, an associate professor of anthropology at Portland State University. I utilize collaborative methodologies to understand how rural mountain communities recover from natural disasters using the catastrophic 2015 Nepal earthquakes as an example. AMA!



Which disasters have you seen during your research as being objectively the most destructive? (Ie: delayed recovery time or recovery length in general). How about the least?


Landslides have been the most destructive. Much of the seismic activity caused the slopes to fail. Extended monsoon rains following the earthquakes cascaded the effects. Click on this link for a photo of a landslide that occurred in Nepal following the 2015 earthquakes:

I would love to hear more about the quantitive model. How did you build it? What does it exactly describe?


Our model contains the following components: hazard exposure, institutional participation, livelihood diversity, and the heterogeneity of resource use, connectivity and social memoral predict adaptive capacity.

For more information, check out:

Has there been any cases you are aware of that showed a region actually becoming stronger after a Disaster than it was before it happened?


Social and ecological systems are linked social and environmental phenomena with dual feedbacks. This perspective helps to illustrate the interconnectedness of social and natural systems. Unfortunately, there are far more examples of natural disasters weakening different aspects of social-ecological systems. However, there are plenty of examples of social boundaries such as class and caste being transcended during a natural hazard.

I'm a Nepali journalist and I was in Kathmandu during the earthquake. I have a couple of questions.

  1. Where exactly are you conducting your anthropological research? Depending on the location of your work, would you say that the adaptive capacities of different communities differ significantly? For instance, the largely Tamang communities of Sindhupalchowk were hit hard and have yet to rebuild and recover in any significant manner while the Gurungs and Ghales of Gorkha have managed to rebuild, albeit piecemeal, and recover in some way.

  2. When did you arrive in Nepal and when did you start working? In the time that you have been in Nepal, what changes have you witnessed in terms of recovery and resilience?

  3. The experience of the Red Cross in Haiti seems to be repeating in Nepal. Much of the recovery work has been done by local and smaller NGOs and informal groups, often the communities themselves. Large INGOs like the Red Cross have been noticeably absent, as a visit to the hinterlands of Sindhupalchowk will make instantly clear. Do you feel this is a fair assessment? What has your experience (and the experience of locals that you spoke to) been like when it comes to the recovery efforts led by these giant INGOs?

  4. What can poor mountain communities like those in Langtang and Barpak do to prepare themselves better for the next earthquake when it comes?


Great questions. I will answer what I can now and feel free to contact me for more information afterward. Also, here are some resources with more information. We are working in Gorkha and Rasuwa Districts in four Village Development Committees. One near the road and one far from the road in each District. The VDC boundaries are now in new municipalities. We viewed significant differences in how the Gurung and Ghale communities were recovering compared to the Tamang communities and more heterogeneous communities near the road.

We arrived in Nov 2015 and conducted preliminary research to select the study sites. Our first research phase was 9 months after the earthquakes and the second 1.5 years. We waited 9 months so that we could document how communities were being served by the rebuilding program. We collected data retrospectively about the state of households before the earthquakes at the 9 month interval.

I agree that NGOs have been absent. We documented a huge dropoff of NGO and government service between the 9 month and 1.5 year data collection. Happy to chat about this more with you. Email me at

Every once in a while I come across an article or paper asserting that humans have an ideal or natural group size they congregate in - i.e., Dunbar's number. A humorous example

Do you see a correlation between disaster recovery and community population count? Not the documented population size, but the actual size of the subgroups within the population. Example subgroup sizes might be church congregation sizes, cliche's, tribes or family groups within a town, etc.


I think this depends on both the social and environmental contexts. There is research that states how social capital through ‘bonding and bridging’ assists with disaster resilience and recovery. In our research it appears that the communities with stronger and more robust social networks are recovering faster.

Thank you for all you do! How big of an impact and/or role do volunteers (i.e. doctors, nurses, missionaries, etc) have or are able to have on the days and months after a disaster? Sounds like a silly question, and I know every little bit helps, but I've been working towards a medical degree in order to participate in relief aid and I'm curious about how complicated it may be to be put in a super useful position and not just in the way.


This is an important question. Funds and volunteers flow into disaster zones immediately after the events. After a year or so the funds and volunteers fall away. I feel the greatest need is not immediately after the event but first, second and third years afterward when the attention has been taken off the disaster.

What positive and negative roles does corruption play in the recovery you have observed thus far?


Great question. I find corruption to be a significant factor in natural disaster recovery, especially in rural areas. Disasters bring with them a huge economy. This ‘disaster capitalism’ can reinforce or promote corruption. There is evidence of this in disaster zones from Haiti to Sudan.

I sent a team of scientists to Nepal immediately after the earthquake. They surveyed three newly formed glacial lakes in the Himalaya to check for structural damage and gauge potential of a special flood called "glacial Lake outburst flood" or GLOF. GLOFs in high Mountain areas are extremely dangerous, and there are more lakes forming due to rapid warming and melting glaciers. Fascinating stuff. You can read about it here, under the project I managed called USAID High Mountain Adaptation Planning (HiMAP): In fact, we successfully (partially) drained one of the three lakes, Imja Lake, at the foot of Mt. Everest, which got some press coverage last summer. Lowering the lake reduced the chance of a flood that would damage villages and wipe out thousands of years of cultural heritage (shrines and fields), not to mention devastate economies.

Much of our work had to do with measuring the adaptive capacity of Nepalese who are vulnerable to GLOFs. We found that the earthquake added a layer of vulnerability that we did not fully anticipate. International response and donated assistance is key to helping the country recover, so long as routes were clear (e.g the India fuel blockades) and government employees were held accountable. I'll stop here.

That's a long preamble to ask: did you find that the Nepali government contribute to vulnerability its people? How does government corruption calculate into your findings of vulnerability (and its components)?

Edit: words.


Great stuff! We should definitely be in touch, especially with my previous work in the Khumbu region. Please email me at

Hello Jeremy, Since you are in the PNW, have you heard about The Earthquake the West Coast is supposed to have within the next couples of decades? If so, how prepared are we for “The Big One”? Would your model help predict the catastrophe of this scenario specifically? Would your model be able to be applied to one large area or to multiple locations? I’ve only learned about The Big One a couple of days ago and have been reading up on it. I would really like to hear your opinion on the subject.


Our hope is that the model is relevant in all types of natural disaster contexts. It shows the complexity of social dynamics in these areas and provides information to help these communities build upon their adaptive capacity.

Is there a noticeable population migration to the lowlands after these disasters? Does population outflow have an effect on community recovery?


We viewed migrations of entire communities to displacement camps. We also documented a slight increase in folks leaving Nepal as wage laborers in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Current anthropology student here. How will understanding how rural mountain communities recover from natural disasters help the future of anthropology?


I am not sure how much impact our work will have on changing anthropology. I’d like to think that our methodology is innovative and that the lessons learned will help in future disaster preparedness and response.

How far along is the Nepalese recovery from the 2015 earthquake? I'd also be interested in hearing more about the modeling!


Things are moving pretty slow. Here is a piece our team wrote about the recovery 1.5 years after the quakes. I also include a link to a talk that discusses the modeling further. In some communities selected for our study, less 10 percent of the residents returned to their homes from temporary shelters.

How big a role did communication (lack of or fast deployment of internet or phone) play in immediate and long term recovery?


Communication was a factor in reaching communities that were far from the road. However, we also observed that some of the most rural communities were recovering quicker than those that were more accessible. That might be because the more accessible communities rely more on outsiders and connections to other communities rather than their own ability to recover themselves (e.g., rebuild their own houses and not wait for others to rebuild for them).

Very interested to see what you find. What are some of the qualitative methodologies that you are incorporating?


We conducted about 80 hours of in-depth interviews and focus groups. We are currently analyzing the data we collected in the qualitative data management software Atlas.ti. Our household survey with 400 households in two different time periods (9 months and 1.5 years after the earthquakes) also contained qualitative questions that we will use to interpret the quantitative results and see what information these data bring us inductively as well. Here is a photograph we took while in the process of working with communities affected by the earthquake:

If your model works out, will it be available for the mountain communities to warn them?


We hope that the model will be useful for both disaster preparedness and response. It will show what is working for communities in the recovery process and what could be focused on to improve preparedness and response. We will also be conducting workshops with the participating communities, NGOs and the government this fall to help integrate our findings into their recovery processes and approaches.

What factors lead to the best outcomes in your opinion when natural hazards occur?


Our study is finding how much social capital matters in the recovery process. Those communities with more local networks helping in the recovery seemed to be recovering faster or at the same pace as communities with access to more resources.

Thanks for coming by! A number of nonprofits like for example Humanity Road use information technology to try to help in disaster situations around the world. Do you find any of those to be helpful? In what ways?


I think there will be technological divide between communities with access to technology and those without. This makes it difficult to use some IT. The Nepali Government used tablets when having engineers assess damage of individual homes. I know that they worked well in some areas and made things difficult in others. It is also difficult since much IT uses the Germanic script and not Nepali.

What have you found to be the single most important factor that improves the capability of a community to recover after an earthquake?


Hard to answer this question. Give our team a bit more time with the data.

How profound of an impact does a natural disaster have on the evolution of a cultures spirituality? Do the individuals you study possess an understanding of the mechanisms behind natural phenomenon or do they still take a metaphysical approach?


Great question! I found generational differences in how folks describe the reason for the earthquakes happening. Older generations seemed to be more rooted in cultural perspectives related to earthquakes; younger generations appeared to be more influenced by Western science through schools. Some of our elder consultants felt that the earthquakes were a response by deities to human behavior on earth.

How do you apply your models to build resilience among the communities you work within post disaster? What challenges do you face balancing wanting to help a particular group and respecting their current culture/practices?


We plan to present our findings back to all participating communities, NGOs and the government in October/November 2017. Our hope is that we can provide information to these communities and the institutions that serve them to make them more knowledgeable in the recovery process and help them to build on resilience.

I'm involved in aid/recovery missions in places like Iraq and Lebanon specifically involving shelter for refugees.

What have you learned about international aid and its long term affects on these rural communities? How critical to recovery is the provision of temporary/repaired shelters?


These are complicated questions. I have seen both positives and negatives from recovery missions. In some situations, the aid causes a dependency on outside resources which in turn disrupts existing social networks that could assist with the recovery. However, I have also seen wonderful examples of how communities are working with national and international partners. One marked observation was that most of the aid leaves after about 1 year following the event. It appears that the long haul is where the help is needed; resources flood in after the event. It is the livelihood reconstruction that takes the most time and needs the most external help.

Hi! I'm an anthropology student currently researching malnutrition in the Dang district of Nepal. Recently, the family I'm living with made a few comments about their town's population growth. The father claims the growth is due to people from mountain communities leaving because of earthquake damage. Did you notice any similar or striking population trends in your research?


We did see some migrations, especially from communities that had most of their infrastructure taken out. Most of the out-migrants where we are working are either living in the displacement camps or working abroad for wage labor. This may be increasing as time passes after the 2015 quakes.

Do such natural disasters have a permanent effect on a culture? If so are there any commonalities in cultural changes that occur?


I view culture as always changing and adapting. It is also intimately connected to the environment. Natural hazards are large scale disturbances in social-ecological systems. These systems contiunally experience small-scale disturbances that shape culture in nuanced ways.

Do you see a rise in human trafficing after a disaster?


YES. There was an increase in human trafficking in the displacement camps after the quakes.

Can you tell us what do you think about the Sentinelese being virtually unaffected by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami; despite being an isolated community at the center of one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history?


This is an important example. Our research is showing that some communities may recover ‘better’ if they have their social networks less disturbed by markey connections or NGOs.

How does someone in your line of work end up focusing on this specific area of study? For example, did you originally intend to research natural hazards, and then focused in on earthquakes, and then rural communities? or was it a different path?


Good question. I have been working in Nepal since 2004, where I conducted my doctoral research on the impacts of tourism and its associated development on Sherpa ecological knowledge around Mount Everest. I was planning on repeating this work 10 years after my original study. When the earthquakes happened, I decided to shift my work to focus on areas that were catastrophically impacted by the natural hazards. There are new areas for me to conduct research in Nepal, albeit still in similar cultural and geographic contexts.

What is the most oddball scenario you have run into


We did not expect the landslides to still be active more than 1.5 years after the earthquakes. Each evening last October we could hear the rocks falling and thought they may headed our way. We also showed up in a community where an NGO was rebuilding all the houses rapidly at the same time.

My friend did her undergraduate thesis on something similar to this. Disaster risk reduction management but more on information seeking and intent to seek information of residents in one of the major cities in our country that has a fault line running through it.

Just out of curiosity, how do you marry together the results of a quanti-quali study properly without quali results being just an afterthought?


It is hard to do, especially with a big sample size for the quant component. I try and elevate both datasets to the same level and look at them as independently as possible and then look and how one supports the other and vice versa. Our sample for the quant (400 households) is significantly higher than the qual (40, 8). We also have qual data from the 400 households. Those data will be the easiest to compare/contrast. There is also qual info that we will quantify and see what it tells us compared to the initial quant data.

When I compare recovery methods used in Nepal after major earthquake in two different times: 1934 and 2015 I have found that Nepal had better coped the first one. At 1934, Nepal had no international support, an autocratic government and quite a feudalistic society. However now under huge international support , Democratic government and a bit of modernization recovery attempts seem to be faltering . what do you think are the effects of social change ( modernization and globalization) on recovery capability of a society that is still on developing phase?


Interesting observations. I am familiar with one study that shows that was much social capital utilized in the recovery from the 1934 eq. The communities we are working in that are further from the road and more reliant on the land seem to be recovering faster. It may be the social capital that exists there pushing this forward. Certain communities were indeed helping one another rebuild and other were not.

Aloha Jeremy! Been years since we've known you during our time as neighbors in Hawaii. My wife and I still use your name from time to time as a code word to be honorable, compassionate, and friendly during times we encounter triggered people. Your compassion was quietly contagious. You're a good guy and stoked to see read more about your research!


Aloha! It is so great to hear from you. Thanks for your words! Sending my best to the family.

How close are we to predicting natural disasters to where we could safely notify the public and bring casualties down? Thank you for your work, and go Vikings! (Current PSU student)


Go Vikes! Tough for me to answer this one. There are so many variables. Succinctly, disaster preparedness needs to focus on social vulnerabilities, the strength of the state response (e.g., FEMA), the actual physical infrastructure (and more) so that natural hazards (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis) do not become natural disasters. My Anth of Disaster class in spring 2018 will critically survey the literature on this topic :-)

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