Published: July 11, 2022 By

young person looking up at a truck producing pollutionWhen Lori Peek (PhDSoc’05) started graduate school in the Department of Sociology in 1999, natural disasters were still largely framed as “acts of God” — isolated events only occasionally impacting an unlucky few, with everyone equally vulnerable to their wrath.

Today, with climate change fueling bigger and more frequent wildfires, hurricanes and floods, and many people experiencing multiple disasters in their lifetime, a different picture is emerging.

“There is growing recognition that these are not ‘great equalizers,’” said Peek, director of the CU Natural Hazards Center. “People at the margins suffer first and worst.”

For two decades, Peek has applied a social science lens to the study of natural disasters, touching down on site within days of hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, tornados in the Midwest, earthquakes in Alaska and wildfires in the West to explore not why buildings collapse and how to make them stronger, but rather who lived in those buildings and what happened to them.

Peek’s research has elucidated how social fault lines around race, gender, age, disability and income often determine who is hit hardest or recovers fastest.

“Hurricane Katrina was a huge marker moment,” said Peek, who traveled to New Orleans immediately after the 2005 hurricane, as terrified residents waited on rooftops for help to arrive. “You had people dying in the streets of a major American city. There was no denying how much your station in life can literally determine if you live or not.”

Peek notes that vulnerable populations are often at a disadvantage before the disaster hits: They might not have the resources, like cellphones and Wi-Fi, to stay informed — or the time, social networks or transportation to leave when necessary. 

Individuals over 65, particularly those with a disability, are often most likely to die. And in the aftermath of disasters, people living on the margins often end up homeless.

“In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we see communities come together in the most extraordinary ways.”

“Disasters often become a mechanism for pushing the poor out of a community,” she said, referencing mobile home parks in Boulder County that were destroyed and never replaced after the 2013 flood.Children are also prone to mental health problems long after the event, she said, particularly if their schools are closed and communities dispersed for a long time.

In contrast, those able to get back to school, connect with friends and find support from their community can not only survive but thrive, she has found.

“In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we see communities come together in the most extraordinary ways.”

She hopes that just as the findings of her engineering colleagues may someday inform new, stronger structures, her work can inspire social policies to make vulnerable populations more resilient both before and after disaster strikes.