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Hurricane Heroes: Christa Court

Christa Court with citrus

Christa Court. UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

You’re an economist—What do you do and how does it relate to hurricanes?

As a regional economist with an Extension and Research appointment, my job is to make sure that decision makers throughout the state understand the size, scope and structure of their local economy and its place within the state, national and even global economy. This also includes helping them understand how the economy is integrated with, and supported by, Florida’s abundant natural resources and impacted by  outside stressors or drivers of change (like hurricanes!)

What is a hurricane you’ll always remember?

Hurricane Michael. I will always remember the helpless and distant feeling that I had sitting in Gainesville during and after the storm made landfall and waiting on power and communications lines to be restored in the Panhandle so that data could start rolling in and we could provide the answers that administrators and policy makers were already requesting. While I will argue that the data our Program produces are indeed important, it is the producers that are reporting damages and the Extension agents that are collecting the damage assessment information, assisting with disaster recovery efforts, and potentially dealing with their own personal losses that are the real Hurricane Heroes!

I will always remember my drive on a return trip to Gainesville from Panama City in February 2020, where I had spoken to members of the Southeastern Society of American Foresters about the impacts of Hurricane Michael on the forest industry. The previous night, I had completed the last hour or two of my drive in the dark, so hadn’t really seen my surroundings. My return drive was in the afternoon, more than a year after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the region, and I got my first real glimpse of the destruction, the acres upon acres of trees with no leaves and missing most of their branches – many that appeared to be snapped in half like they were toothpicks. While our Program typically leaves assessments of timber-related losses to the Florida Forest Service, this was a stark reminder of what the types of numbers we put together really represent. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but seeing the destruction with your own eyes is a whole different experience, and I can only imagine the additional burden of that destruction impacting one’s own life, property, or livelihood.

How long have you been with UF/IFAS?

I joined the faculty of the Food and Resource Economics Department as an Assistant Scientist under Dr. Alan Hodges in the Summer of 2016, so a little over 5 years. I moved into my current position as an Assistant Professor of Regional Economics and Director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program in the Fall of 2019.

What hurricanes have you dealt with in your work over the years?

Hurricane Irma was my first hurricane experience, both personally and professionally. At the time, Dr. Hodges and several other FRE colleagues felt that, as faculty members at a land-grant university, we needed to help our stakeholders and our state after that event. I joined the crew to help with data compilation and we were able to produce timely and accurate information on the potential scope of agricultural losses within a matter of days (statewide totals) and weeks (county-level estimates). Continued development of the data collection tools and process meant that we were ready (as ready as one can be) to perform a rapid assessment when Hurricane Michael devastated communities in the Florida panhandle and beyond in 2018. We have since performed this rapid assessment for each and every tropical cyclone event that has had a significant impact on production agriculture in Florida. We have also helped provide data and advice to researchers and Extension faculty in other states that have been impacted by significant tropical cyclone events over the last five years and have learned a lot from these colleagues as well.

How do you go about assessing the economic impact of a given storm, and how has that process changed over the years?

In terms of data collection, we have gone from what was referred to as “windshield surveys” (where UF/IFAS Extension agents drove by a farm and took notes on what they observed) to a more harmonized impact assessment survey that allows for more timely and accurate reports on damages experienced by growers, ranchers, nursery owners, aquaculturists, etc. This online survey instrument is compatible with the requirements of federal and state agencies so that hopefully producers are filling out fewer surveys.  UF/IFAS Extension agents and producers can fill out the survey on any internet-connected device, and in the event that internet service is not available, a paper copy of the survey can be filled out. Survey responses are used to estimate the direct production losses associated with a disaster event. Harmonization of this data collection process prevents us from reporting inconsistent information and allows UF/IFAS Extension agents and faculty to spend more time focusing on the vital mission of assisting stakeholders and community members with disaster recovery.

How is economic impact information used?

After a disaster, federal and state decision makers use these credible estimates of the agricultural losses to make official disaster declarations and focus relief and recovery efforts. More importantly, data on the economic impacts of these events can be used to create a more resilient agricultural and food system in the State of Florida by informing local, state and federal level decisions related to disaster preparation or the prevention and mitigation of such losses. Past summaries of the estimated commodity losses are available on the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program’s Disaster Impact Analysis website.

Hurricanes require a team effort. How does teamwork help you do what you do and who is a part of that team?

I am so glad you asked this question! You will notice I use “we” when talking about my work in this area because I do not (and could not) do it alone! I should first acknowledge the important contributions of Dr. Alan Hodges, who is now retired but played a critical role in directing some of our team efforts in this topic area. The UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program now has several postdoctoral research associates (Dr. Xiaohui Qiao, Dr. Bijeta Saha, and Dr. Joao Ferreira), graduate students (Eyrika Orlando and Roberto Koeneke), and affiliated faculty (Dr. Andrew Ropicki and Dr. John Lai) that directly or indirectly contribute to the Program’s work in this area through baseline data collection, survey design and implementation, geospatial analysis, and crop/commodity-specific expertise. Collaboration with UF/IFAS Extension administrators and agents throughout the state is also critical. We could NOT do our job without the assistance of the numerous Extension agents who are our “boots on the ground” and “eyes on the fields” after an event – often completing damage assessments when their own homes and families have been impacted.