P!Nterview: Natural Hazards Center

The Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder has served as a national and international clearinghouse of knowledge on the social science and policy aspects of disaster since 1976. The Center collects and shares research and experience related to preparedness for, recovery from and mitigation of disasters, emphasizing the link between mitigation and sustainability.

The Center’s widely-read literature includes the Natural Hazards Observer and their Disaster Research newsletter.

Liesel Ritchie, the Center’s Assistant Director for Research, spoke about what the Center has observed in 2010 and what it will focus on in 2011.

Q: In 2011, what areas will be the focus of the Natural Hazards Center’s research?

In 2011, we’ll continue research in several areas including the Haiti earthquake, the BP and Exxon Valdez oil spills, and the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill impoundment breach in Kingston, Tennessee. We’re also engaged in a study of Chernobyl disaster survivors from the former Soviet Union. Broadly speaking, we will continue to investigate a range of natural and human-caused disasters and their impacts on communities, groups, and individuals. We’re also advancing the understanding of how various hazard risks are perceived by different groups and how information providers could improve their communication. These studies highlight issues survivors face immediately after a disaster, as well as long after the event. Research findings from these lines of inquiry help to inform disaster preparedness efforts.

We’re also excited about a relatively new development — the establishment of a Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing Normal University that will facilitate collaborative research on hazards and disaster, as well as provide student exchange opportunities.

Of course, the Natural Hazards Center doesn’t only do research. Our publishing house will continue to issue our popular academic journal, Natural Hazards Observer. We’re also engaged in outreach to more than 5,000 hazards practitioners through our online newsletter, DR — Disaster Research News You Can use. And our unique disaster research library is working to digitize a large portion of its current holdings and expand its digital infrastructure to accommodate partnerships and collaborations with other disaster and emergency management organizations.

Q: Looking back on 2010, much of the national media focus was on the Deepwater Horizon explosion and its aftermath in the Gulf of Mexico. Are there important issues you feel did not receive the deserved attention in the world of disaster studies and management?

Yes, there were a number of events that warranted more attention but did not receive it. Among them were the flooding in Pakistan and the heat wave and wildfires in Russia. The flooding in Nashville, Tennessee, was also for the most part ignored. Beyond specific disasters, climate change issues and hazards associated with climate variability were largely overlooked. For example, the “snowmaggedon” of winter 2010 that blasted the East Coast — much like the recent blizzards in the Southeastern U.S. — now seems a distant memory rather than something from which we learned.

Q: People in vulnerable regions often seem to have plenty of advanced warning for major storms through traditional news media and online tools. Has the level of preparedness likewise improved with this widespread availability of information, based on the Hazards Center’s observations?

Although it might seem that there is adequate advanced warning for major storms through news media and the Internet, this is not necessarily the case. Let’s start by thinking about the scientific monitoring needed to create and issue warnings to the public. Taking the Indian Ocean Tsunami as an example: There were literally hours between the earthquake that caused it and the impact of the tsunami. Yet, it proved to be a surprise because there were no monitoring buoys in place. Even in situations where there might be enough data to issue public warnings, people don’t necessarily have the technology to receive emergency notifications.

This leads to another problem with this assumption. It doesn’t account for the fact that online tools and “common” media might not be as accessible to people in more vulnerable regions. It’s critical that we consider the digital divide in technology access among people of different socioeconomic statuses — both in the U.S. and internationally. Warning systems and communication strategies that rely solely on technology could potentially exacerbate the disparities between the rich and the poor, particularly in the contexts of hazards and disasters.

People having access to warnings and making use of warnings are two distinct things. Even if we assume the information is spread, that doesn’t necessarily mean people are warned. It is important that we don’t generalize U.S. experiences to other parts of the world. Instead, cultural settings should be examined and systems adapted to accommodate variations in how people understand and respond to warnings.

Q: What are your feelings on the level of disaster training or education available to the public? Do certain cities or regions deserve recognition for the level of community-wide preparedness they have worked to achieve?

Research shows that there tend to be disaster preparedness leaders and laggers. Unfortunately, a majority of cities and states in the U.S. are laggers. Among the cities considered leaders are Los Angeles and Miami — two locations with a lot of natural disaster experience that have made preparedness a priority. Similarly, New York City and Washington, D.C. have focused on terrorism preparedness since 9/11. One mitigation success story is Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has been recognized for its outstanding achievements in flood hazard risk reduction.

In the past decade, the Department of Homeland Security has made substantial investments in training first responders. The extent to which this investment has paid off remains to be seen; it is even less clear whether these investments have translated to the general public. With that said, there is reason for deep concern regarding the current economic situation in the U.S. and how this will affect budgets at both the state and municipal government levels. Specifically, it will be important to document ways in which funding cuts influence spending on disaster preparedness efforts, including education and training.