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Lori Peek of the Natural Hazards Center Discusses Effects of Disasters on People

Based at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Peek takes a sociological view, researching how populations, especially children, are affected by disasters.

Lori Peek started in January as director of the Natural Hazards Center, Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Peek has been at the fore of researching how disasters affect populations, especially children. She co-wrote Children of Katrina, which received the 2016 Best Book Award from the American Sociological Association Section on Children and Youth Distinguished Scholarly Research Award .

We asked Peek about the future of emergency management as it pertains to evolving social issues and about her favorite subject, children. 

You just became the director of the Natural Hazards Center; how has that gone so far and what prepared you for this challenge?

It’s been a busy few months settling into the position, and really exciting.

There have been five directors in the history of this hazards center. The founding director was the wonderful Gilbert White, the esteemed geographer; followed by Bill Travis and Dennis Mileti, the sociologist; and then Kathleen Tierney. Dennis was actually my adviser and was a student of Gilbert’s. In some ways, it’s as if Gilbert was my academic grandfather and Dennis was my academic father; it’s like coming back home in some ways.

I went to grad school here at the University of Colorado and did my Ph.D. in sociology. I feel really fortunate to have known all four of the previous directors of the center. That, along having had the opportunity to work here as a graduate student, was so instrumental in my understanding of the history, mission and vision of the center. That connection and my enduring respect for all that the center stands for in terms of its mission within the broader hazards and disaster community has really helped facilitate the transition.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for emergency managers in the coming decades?

As a sociologist, a lot of times we’re thinking about the big social and economic challenges, but we also might see them as opportunities. For example, rising social inequality — the increasing number of people who are living insecure lives in this nation of opportunity and affluence. We have more children living in poverty, more people in food-insecure households. As those social and economic challenges increase, the jobs of emergency managers get more difficult because getting someone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from to focus on putting together their emergency evacuation plan or their hurricane go-kit, for example, those challenges are really amplified.

I also think something that is both a challenge and opportunity is what’s happening in this nation with demographic change. As we are becoming not just racially and ethnically diverse, but also religiously more diverse and diverse on a whole range of indicators, that’s a challenge for emergency managers. How do you serve what some sociologists say is the most racially and ethnically diverse country in the world?

It’s a challenge but also an opportunity when I think about workforce development and bringing new voices and perspectives into emergency management because we know that these diverse people living in the most populous and most vibrant cities in the United States continue to draw immigrants as they did 100 years ago, and those are also the places that are the real disaster hot spots. So how do we get these new generations in Los Angeles and New York City and Miami and San Francisco interested in emergency planning? It is a real challenge, but also a real opportunity.

Can you elaborate on that? How do we reach these diverse populations?

Are you aware of the Bill [William Averette] Anderson Fund that is entirely dedicated to diversifying the emergency management practice and disaster research? He was a sociologist who unfortunately suffered an untimely death, but he was a leading researcher. He had long been this voice in the disaster research community saying we need more women, more people of color, both in research and practice, because those are the communities we’re studying and serving, but the research and practice aren’t reflective of those communities. When Bill passed away, his wife started the fund, which is in its third year, where there are Bill Anderson Fund fellows who are master’s and doctoral students, and the fund is dedicated to changing the face of emergency management.

We need more programs, scholarships and mentoring space in emergency management and in higher education to really bring into the fold these diverse people and perspectives, but I also think there are other opportunities that open up, like FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council. I look at that and think those teenagers are reflective of the diversity of the United States today. We know youth are more diverse than older cohorts.

I also think emergency managers are out in the community all the time giving lectures, working with community groups trying to get people engaged. If they can be intentional and aware, and think, “I’m going to X, Y and Z organizations, but what if I went to A, B and C organizations? I’m going to extend my reach into new and different communities.” So being intentional and talking about it as an opportunity to get new people engaged is really important.

We know that if people do not see themselves reflected in materials, if you go to a website and all you see are people that are of a different race and ethnicity, a different age demographic, different gender, you say, “Oh, this isn’t for me.” But if we can be intentional with our materials and with the ways we are speaking, those things speak volumes.

How do you see emergency managers and their jobs evolving in the coming decades?

It’s sort of like how teachers today say, “Wow, my job has evolved. I am no longer an educator from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. delivering curriculum through the textbook. I’m also caregiver and a social worker.” This ties back to what I was saying about rising inequality, rising insecurity within our families. I know this is a sociology-biased answer, but I think that emergency managers can no longer think in that way that “you need to get a family reunification plan and your emergency supplies in place.” Emergency managers know that when they go in to give those talks, people look at them wide-eyed, saying, “I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, I’m not even in secure housing. I don’t know where my family is. I’m an immigrant, and we’ve been separated.” The complexity of the job expands, and it’s going to test emergency management to develop new partnerships.

Emergency managers are going to have to partner with not just the local police department, but also social workers and the schools, because when something unfolds, parents are going to go to the schools. The 21st-century emergency manager has to be aware of the changing social demographics of rising inequality because all of those things are influencing their ability to do their jobs and do it to their capacity.

It’s a challenge and a real opportunity to think in more complex and holistic ways. Not only are we facing social and economic changes, but we’re doing all this in the context of real environmental change, the speeding up of disaster losses. In Louisiana, they are still dealing with three disasters back, where people haven’t recovered from three disasters ago and then they get hit by another flood or tornado.

It’s the intersection of all these forces. The 21st-century emergency manager has to be thinking at the intersection of all the different phenomena that are unfolding in people’s lives.

How do you see the degree programs being offered as addressing the needs of the future?

The emergency management degree programs have exploded over the past two decades. We’re living in a time where we have our first emergency management high school at the Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management in New York City, and then we have the growth and professionalization of emergency management, so the programs are quite variable.

But when we consider the lessons that have been learned in terms of how to communicate risk, how to think about vulnerable populations, I absolutely think that social science findings have infused emergency management practice.

I just had a conversation with some very high-ranking Ph.D.s and they said, “Lori, isn’t population exposure the same as social vulnerability?” And I said no, because population exposure might be that the 10 million people in Los Angeles are all exposed to seismic risk at some level, but if we ignore social vulnerability then what we don’t have on the table is that of those 10 million, many are likely to suffer far worse consequences because of their economic circumstances, because of the buildings they occupy, because of their family status. I think the new emergency manager thinks of that social vulnerability, and that’s exciting to me.

You chronicled the plight of children during and after Katrina. Talk about how devastating disasters can be for children.

Children are coming of age in a world that is more turbulent than ever before. Children on the Gulf Coast, for example, have experienced already an average of 3.4 disasters in their lives. What does that mean for children in some of our most vulnerable areas coming of age in a place that is being struck by disaster? What does that cumulative disaster experience mean in their lives?

Much of my work has focused on two big things. One, what renders children vulnerable to disaster? In what ways may children be psychologically vulnerable and when might they be physically at risk of death or other forms of physical harm? We know that children’s biological mechanisms may put them more at risk in situations like an oil spill where they are literally closer to the ground and inhaling oil particles. That could have more of an effect than on adults. Second are educational vulnerabilities.

One of the things that our research from Katrina revealed is that the disruption caused by that disaster led to more than 300,000 children out of school a year later. If a child’s one job is to get an education and a disaster is disrupting that pathway, what does that mean for kids?