Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis

Colorado State University 
B-258 Clark Building
Fort Collins, CO 80523-1784 

Youth Creating Disaster Recovery

High River Art Wall

By Dr. Robin S. Cox & Sarah Michaud

It will be almost a year ago that severe flooding impacted Southern Alberta, causing the evacuation of thousands of people, and ultimately destroying homes, infrastructure, and businesses in communities throughout the southern part of the province. One of the hardest hit communities was High River, and to this day they continue to clean up, rebuild and recover from the devastation of the floods.

In the midst of that devastation one resident, whose home was badly flooded, spontaneously created a public, participatory art project on the walls of his flooded home. The Art Wall, as it became known, began with some of his own mud covered art work. Jerry Shiel screwed several pieces of art to the external walls, spray painted “Art Wall” on the outside of the ravaged siding, and then scattered screws across his walls inviting others to contribute their art. The idea took off and other flood survivors in the community began contributing art and artefacts to the outside of Jerry's condemned house.

On April 6th, almost ten months after the floods, an event was held to celebrate the art wall prior to it being taken down and the house pulled down to make room for a new home. RRU Masters student, Sarah Michaud, attended the ceremony as part of the Youth Creating Disaster Recovery project. The research project, led by Royal Roads Professor, Dr. Robin Cox and her colleague Dr. Lori Peek (Colorado State University) is focused on empowering youth and learning from them about their disaster recovery experiences.

Sarah, who is completing her Masters Thesis in Environmental Education and Communication, is being supervised by Dr. Cox and is working as a research assistant with the YCDR project. Sarah’s research focuses on youth and environmental education in the context of the post-disaster environment. Both her thesis and YCDR are using arts-based processes to explore the disaster recovery experiences and community environment with youth.

Sarah travelled to High River from her home in Edmonton to record some of the stories behind the artwork and to provide an opportunity for two disaster affected youth from Slave Lake to participate in that process. Michelle Karpa and Hayden Zimmer both lived through the 2011 wildfires in Slave Lake and have generously contributed to the YCDR project with their time and insightful reflections on their recovery experiences.  Both are now pursuing post-secondary education in Edmonton. When asked, Michelle and Hayden did not hesitate to join Sarah in standing alongside people now living through the long disaster recovery process they themselves have been a part of in Slave Lake.

Michelle, asked to share a few words with the High River residents who had gathered at the Art Wall, humbly offered up these words of encouragement with Hayden nodding in agreement:

“We know that you have gone through a lot.  When we got asked to come here and be a part of this, we were so excited because we want to hear your stories and we want to hear what you guys are going through and if there’s anything you need to hear from people who have gone through something kind of similar, if we can give you any piece of advice or any little piece of knowledge that maybe you guys can take away from us, then we’re totally here for that. We’re just here to listen.”

The dismantling of the High River Art Wall brought together people who had both contributed pieces of art to as well as those who had simply found encouragement in its emergence over the past nine months.  For High River’s Jay Crawford, whose girlfriend died in the flood, the Art Wall was a significant part of his healing and recovery over the past year.

“I lost my girlfriend in the flood" Jay told reporters, "which was very hard to cope with, and in my 40 years of being alive I’ve seen lots of deaths but nothing so close to my heart. The Art Wall gave me that hope that I was looking for, and seeing it come down is hard because it means so much to me.”

Jay Crawford was nominated as the official curator of the Art Wall and was given two of the pieces as they came down from the wall.

Michelle further reflected on a day filled with touching narratives saying,

”I think it’s amazing to have something like that that did bring the community together and I think it’s awesome that they were able to do that and so many people were willing to be a part of it and people who didn’t even come forward and say ‘oh this is mine’, but they just put stuff there and they knew it was theirs but you know it wasn’t for ‘oh I’m a part of this’ it’s ‘okay the community can look at this.  It was mine and now it’s the community’s’ and I think there is something really amazing in that. “

Michelle’s comments beautifully capture the heart of what made the High River Art Wall so important to many residents in the flood recovery process. The emergent public-art project provided an opportunity for High River residents to share about their recovery in ways that moved beyond words while being reminded that they were not alone but in the company of fellow residents as the community rebuilds and re-invents itself.

The presence of the two young people from Slave Lake also underscores the power of the contributions that disaster-affected young people can make not only in their own communities but in other communities that have been impacted by disaster.  YCDR is a project that is committed to empowering young people to do just this – to make a difference in the lives of their peers, their community, and society in the wake of disasters—by sharing their experiences, insights and inspirations. The project is working in Joplin Missouri, devastated by a tornado in 2011; Slave Lake Alberta which experienced a catastrophic wildfire in 2011; and flood affected communities in Southern Alberta including High River and Calgary.

Somewhere in the world, a disaster occurs each day. Sometimes the impacts are felt locally, such as the recent wildfires near Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, Colorado, that destroyed 605 homes. Other times, the event reaches across state and national boundaries, such as Hurricane Sandy along the east coast, and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Globally, the number of natural disasters has increased fourfold during the past three decades—from about 120 per year during the 1980s to roughly 500 per year now.  These disasters, which claim tens of thousands of lives each year, exert a disproportionate impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable individuals.

At the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis (CDRA) at Colorado State University, we engage in interdisciplinary research, education, and outreach activities for the primary purpose of reducing human vulnerability to disasters and increasing individual and community capacity to prepare for and recover from hazard events.

To learn more, visit us on facebook

and follow us on Twitter

SHOREline Project Overview

Please check out this video featuring Dr. David Abramson and Dr. Lori Peek, the co-founders and co-directors of SHOREline! Here they are describing the background and development of this post-disaster recovery and youth empowerment program.

SHOREline Recruitment Video

Are you a high school student during the 2013-2014 academic year? Do you see challenges in your community that young people could address if they had the chance? Would you like to make a difference and meet new people from across the Gulf Coast and beyond? If you answered "Yes!" and you attend one of the following five high schools in the Gulf Coast areas, get an application at today. Grand Isle School, LA; Benjamin Franklin High School, LA; South LaFourche High School, LA; Gulfport High School, MS; and Bryant High School, AL.

Youth Creating Disaster Recovery

Brett Blair is a master's student in intercultural and international communication at Royal Roads University. Through a compelling video piece, Brett showcases the work of SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship-funded colleague Robin Cox, who studies youth empowerment as part of disaster recovery. Emphasizing the research's model of participatory, creative engagement, Blair's video also explores the increasingly-vocal youth demographic and its impact on shaping disaster policy and practice.

Gulf Oil Spill Research Goes Mobile with AT&T

August 23, 2012 - Following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health deploys a field team to collect research on the health, social and economic impacts on people who live within disaster zones. Under an agreement with AT&T, the NCDP uses the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 on AT&T's network to conduct surveys in the field and instantly share feedback with their team in New York.

For more information, please visit:

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Dispersant Experiment

July 28, 2012 - The BP oil spill made international headlines two summers ago as images of stained beaches and oil-soaked pelicans portrayed what might have been the nation’s greatest ecological disaster.  Along with their massive PR efforts, British Petroleum had another method of keeping the spill from sinking their business – the chemical dispersant Corexit.  In the months following the spill, over two million gallons were sprayed and injected into the Gulf of Mexico and so began the great experiment…

After six months of filming in the Gulf in 2010, our first project, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Dispersant Experiment” draws from local residents, a variety of experts, and an in-depth lab experiment to exposes the truth about BP’s cleanup in the Gulf.

Please help share our piece as we aim to spread this truth and combat the multi-million dollar PR campaign that claims all is well.  As legal battles continue to play out, it is not too late to bring justice to the people of the Gulf.

NEED TO KNOW: Preserving memories after Sandy

The Brooklyn-based nonprofit "Care for Sandy" has emerged as one of the critical grassroots groups helping residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy save some of their most cherished memories. For more:




Please note that our web site is a work in progress. We encourage you to visit the site regularly for updated information.

CDRA Faculty Affiliate, Hussam Mamoud, Chosen as the Recipient of the 2014 Robert J. Dexter Memorial

Please join us in congratulating Hussam Mamoud, who has just been informed by the Chairman of the Steel Market Development Institute Steel Bridge Task Force that he will be the recipient of the 2014 Robert J. Dexter Memorial, which is an extremely prestigious award given by the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) Steel Market Development Institute Steel Bridge Task Force and the AASHTO Technical Committee for Structural Steel Design. The program was instituted in 2005 in memory of Robert Dexter, an internationally recognized expert on steel fracture and fatigue problems.

Hussam will be recognized at the upcoming meeting in Denver this August where he will be delivering the lecture.

Congratulations Hussam!