Lori Peek (PhDSoc’05), a CU Boulder sociology professor, directs the university’s Natural Hazards Center.
Floods, hurricanes and wildfires: 2017 has been devastating in the U.S. Have you been unusually busy?
Yes. We have been compiling resources for community members, stakeholders and others to help educate and inform as these disasters are unfolding. We also run a quick-response grant program that helps deploy researchers into the field so they can gather data and launch longer-term studies. There have been a lot of inquiries from media outlets.
What sparked your interest in studying the sociology of hazards and disasters?
I arrived as a new graduate student at CU in 1999 and had the incredible fortune to be hired as the graduate research assistant at the Natural Hazards Center. I fell in love with the possibility of taking social scientific knowledge and applying it for the betterment of humanity.
Have you ever directly experienced a natural disaster?
No, but when I was a child — I grew up in rural eastern Kansas — my grandparents’ house was hit by a tornado and their barn was destroyed and their house was badly damaged. Fortunately, they were fine. I still have such vivid memories of my three brothers and my parents and I going down into the cellar outside of our house when tornado warnings would be issued.
Your book with Alice Fothergill (PhDSoc’01), Children of Katrina, focuses on the long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina on children. What are they?
Something Katrina really taught us is that the most destructive and disruptive disasters can have truly life-altering consequences for children. When children experience life threat or multiple displacements, these sorts of things can disrupt education, peer networks and family networks and can have long-standing implications for their health, development and well-being.
Has the U.S. made progress since Katrina on hurricane recovery?
While we have improved in terms of our emergency response, we have continued to build and develop in areas that are subject to natural hazards. If we don’t mitigate risk, we’re going to continue to see these bigger disasters. We must keep our eye on the prize and work on reducing the risks we face, which means building smarter, more sustainably and with a climate-resilient framework so we don’t see more mega-catastrophes.
Has there been an increase in natural disasters, or are more people just living in vulnerable areas?
The number of reported natural disasters in the U.S. has tripled over the last 20 years. Some of the explanations for the increase are related to climatic changes, population growth and unsustainable development in hazardous areas. There is no one simple answer for why we are seeing bigger disasters, but we must understand these complex causes if we ever hope to reduce them.
Are there positives that have come out of increased media coverage?
What I’ve found most positive and heartening is that there has been a lot more evidence-informed reporting, really drawing on the expert knowledge that is out there. In addition, leaders have come on TV and been doing something that we recommend, which is to provide actionable information. It is not effective to just say: ‘A hurricane is coming, get out of the way.’ It is important to offer concrete steps people can take in light of their social context.
Are there certain regions in the U.S. that are more vulnerable to disasters?
There is no place that doesn’t have some hazards risk. However, some places have much higher exposure, and some hazards are much more frequent and severe. New Orleans, Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston are what we call disaster hotspots, because they have large concentrations of people and infrastructure in highly hazard prone regions.
What is the most important thing people around the country need to learn from our recent natural disasters?
Disasters of this magnitude are not inevitable. There is a possibility to reduce the risk we are all facing, but that is going to take time, resources, sound science, leadership, focused attention and collective action.
Condensed and edited.
Photo by Glenn Asakawa