A Disasterologist On Coming Together To Weather The Climate Crisis

17:12 minutes

an illustration of temporary tents and supplies with a worker in a caution vest with mountains in the background. some people are sitting hold their knees close to their chest
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As climate change amplifies the risks of natural hazards like wildfires, hurricanes, drought, and more, there’s a group of scientists hoping to change the way the United States responds to the disasters that often result. 

They are disaster researchers: the people who study the engineering, sociology, and even psychology of what makes the difference between an easily handled hurricane, and a catastrophe like Hurricane Maria, which wiped out infrastructure, destroyed 800,000 homes, and killed an estimated 5,000 people in Puerto Rico in 2017.

Emergency management researcher Samantha Montano is the author of the forthcoming book Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis. She talks to producer Christie Taylor about the nuts and bolts of preparing for a disaster, how climate change is changing the equation, and how justice in disaster response will be more important than ever.    

Read an excerpt from Montano’s book, Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis.

Segment Guests

Samantha Montano

Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of Emergency Management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and author of Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis (Park Row, 2021). She’s based in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

ROXANNE KHAMSI: This is Science Friday. I’m Roxanne Khamsi. If you live on the West Coast, you know it’s wildfire season. You might be bracing for potential evacuations at some point this summer and hoping you don’t lose your home.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast and around the Gulf, maybe you’re watching for tropical storms as they form and you hope, dissipate. And all over the US, you might be dealing with either historic drought or heavy rainfall and flash flooding. All of these natural hazards become disasters when they come into contact with human habitation or resources.

And Sci Fri producer, Christie Taylor has a story about one scientist who studies disasters and what determines how well people and communities are able to bounce back. Hey, Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey there, Roxanne.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So it hadn’t occurred to me that disaster response is a science. Tell me about what you found about the research behind disaster response.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, I talked to Samantha Montano, who is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. She is also just about to release a book on all of what you just talked about called Disasterology, which is not the official name of this field, by the way. And one of the points she made is that at least currently, most disasters that happen are handled so effectively that we don’t even hear about them.

It’s really just the big ones that can stretch our planning or response capacity. And those are the ones that make the news. And even then, how we prepare and respond can make a huge difference in how well communities can, as you said, bounce back and recover.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So it sounds like this is a field that might be trying to change some things as we stare down the impacts of global warming in the coming years. Am I right?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You’re exactly right, Roxanne. Emergency managers are bracing for more and more of these as global warming amplifies our risk. But first, I started by asking Sam to explain the basics. What happens when a disaster, like a flood or fire is incoming? And then, what happens during and after?

SAMANTHA MONTANO: You know, the thing with disasters is that the decisions that you have made, the decisions that other people have made, policies, all of these other factors that have happened long before the disaster occurred are going to affect how that disaster unfolds. Puerto Rico for example, right, the decisions that had been made about the electric grid and the way that the electric grid was built and run in Puerto Rico happened long before Hurricane Maria. But those decisions had a direct effect on the extent of the damage and what that response and that recovery process looks like.

And so when we’re thinking about responding to a disaster, you’re not just thinking about that earthquake, that hurricane, that wildfire. You’re also having to account for all of these other factors– the vulnerability of the community that it is going to affect. Do you have a community that has a warning system, for example? Or do you have a community where people are aware of this risk and know how to react when this hazard occurs?

Do they have the money and the resources to be able to take the appropriate protective actions? Do they have the money to evacuate? Do they have a car to evacuate?

Once that disaster is eminent and you are in that phase of response, you are really relying on the existing relationships that you have in your community. You’re relying on existing communication networks. You’re relying on training and exercises and plans that you have worked on long in advance.

And then, when we get into recovery, we see a similar situation unfold. Again, we know from the research that communities that have pre-existing recovery plans that have thought through how they might rebuild their community, have looked at what financial resources are available to them to rebuild tend to be able to move through that recovery process more effectively, more efficiently, because they’ve done that preexisting planning– that preexisting work.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So one thing I’ve noticed is that you keep talking about communities. And you’re right about how emergency management isn’t just a science of engineering, but it should also be one that considers sociology– how groups of people work– as opposed to maybe the image we might have of one person sort of grabbing their go bag and running out of the house. Can you say more about that?

SAMANTHA MONTANO: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think here too, the big Hollywood disaster movies that usually have this like one hero that’s off saving the family–

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Like Tommy Lee Jones.

SAMANTHA MONTANO: Exactly, Tommy Lee Jones, The Rock in San Andreas, right? Yeah, this one guy who’s out there saving his family and you know, running through fire. And that is not really the reality.

When disasters happen, we see that there is a community response. There is a collective response to that disaster. Those same Hollywood movies very often portray this kind of panic and this chaos and looting and violence and kind of just mass chaos that occurs during these disasters. And actually, disaster sociologists, dating back many decades, have found that isn’t actually what happens.

Actually, people tend to behave very rationally. Part of this human behavior that has been observed is that people come together, we work together. In research, we call them emergent groups. But really, what that’s describing is people kind of randomly spontaneously coming together to address whatever need has emerged during that disaster.

So for example, when there’s a need for search and rescue, the people who are there coordinate amongst themselves. They start digging through rubble. They go to their neighbor’s house and get their boat and start going out to search for people on their roofs. We see time and time again, that communities are themselves the first responders. The survivors of the disaster are themselves the first responders.

You are the first person to know when there is an earthquake that your neighbor was at home and is now trapped under rubble. And you go and you start digging before any kind of urban search and rescue team gets flown in.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Let’s start with the 2017 hurricane season. We saw Hurricane Irma. It killed almost 150 people. And then, we have Hurricane Maria, which had almost the same islands and went on to kill an estimated 5,000 people in Puerto Rico. What made the difference between Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria when we look at what determines how people fare in a disaster?

SAMANTHA MONTANO: You know, the 2017 hurricane season I think, is really instructive of what it looks like to have one disaster after another, and the effect that can have on the overall capacity of our emergency management system. So actually, even before Irma, we had Hurricane Harvey in Texas. And so we had for a month and a half, two months straight these huge responses across the country. And the response to Harvey required people coming in from all of these other states, required the federal government coming into Texas to help.

People were killed. There was extensive damage. But considering the size of that hurricane, considering the extent of the destruction, the actual response was handled relatively effectively. Same situation with Hurricane Irma in Florida.

But then, you got to Hurricane Maria, specifically in Puerto Rico. And you see something very different. You see not only extensive destruction, but near complete destruction. Even though Puerto Ricans were certainly responding to what was happening themselves and helping themselves and their neighbors, there was not that same influx of immediate aid coming from surrounding states, from the federal government in a way that met the extent of those needs in Puerto Rico.

The way that our system is set up is that when a disaster happens, other states are sending aid to support the area that has been affected. And that was what happened during Harvey and Irma. But that meant that many, if not most of those resources were already deployed. Even if you pull them from those other communities, you are pulling people who have been out in the field working for weeks on end who are exhausted. That exhaustion, that burnout, was kind of seeping throughout the emergency responders.

And reports since Maria, you can see that private vendors that FEMA uses, for example, to provide food and water in communities post disaster were at their capacity. So you see this kind of cascading– failure kind of within that system that contributed to the extent of the damage in Puerto Rico.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, I want to talk about those compounding disasters a little bit. We are seeing more. We talked about three hurricanes in 2017 earlier.

But just this year just in the US, we’ve seen unprecedented heat waves, big drought conditions all over large portions of the Southwest, flash flooding on the East Coast. And then, that’s in addition to like regular wildfire and hurricane seasons. A lot of this is fitting the models made by climate change researchers. But the scale, I know at least personally, has been really shocking to me to watch it all unfold. As a researcher of disasters, do you think we should be surprised by everything that’s happened this year?

SAMANTHA MONTANO: It is certainly horrible to see and shocking in many ways to see. But at the same time, this is exactly what researchers have been saying for decades, in some cases. When we have talked about what the consequences of climate change are, a huge part of that focus has been on the impact on extreme events.

When you take those climate models and what climate scientists tell us about how climate change affects extreme weather, and you pair it with the policy decisions that have been made for decades in the United States and around the world, you get a recipe for disaster. You get a recipe for exactly what we are seeing now. When you have unchecked development in known flood plains, and then you add more water than has historically been there in the past, it will flood.

So it is again, a horrific thing to see these disasters unfold one after another. But it also is a direct product of these decisions that have been made by some people.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So as climate change continues, where does our disaster management infrastructure need to scale up or shift in order to accommodate these perhaps, year-on-year disasters for some areas, or just more places that are facing disasters? Do we need more money to fund paying firefighters, for example? I mean, what would be on your wish list?

SAMANTHA MONTANO: All of it. You know, as we look at these disasters that have unfolded– even just take the past four or five years– you can see that we have not had the capacity within the emergency management System to effectively respond to them all. If we did, the Maria response would have looked a lot different.

So what we need to look at here is not just what the increases in risk looks like for each community around the country. But we also need to look at the effect across the country. What does this look like as a whole? Because our model of emergency management relies on mutual aid coming from other communities.

And if every community is dealing with their own disaster, those resources that we have tended to rely on in the past may not be there, or at least not be there in the full way that they were before. Actually, with the pandemic, we started to get a sense of what this could look like. For the first time since FEMA was created, we had a disaster declared in every single state and territory in the country.

Because everybody was focused on addressing those needs in their own community, the sharing that usually happens during a disaster wasn’t what we’ve become accustomed to. So when we think about the future and think about this increasing risk, I think it’s really useful to look at this in terms of the capacity of our emergency management system. For me that means, first and foremost, building the capacity of our local emergency management agencies.

When we look across the country, a lot of these emergency management agencies are really just somebody who is working part time– a fire chief, who is doing fire chief things half of the time, and emergency management things the other half of the time. And we need more people in these emergency management agencies who can dedicate the time that is really needed.

And of course, at the national level, we need to be looking at FEMA, specifically looking at increasing funding specifically to the grant programs that FEMA runs, so that they can be used to build that capacity of those local emergency management agencies. But to also make sure that we are funding our hazard mitigation projects, funding other preparedness efforts at that local level.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a quick reminder that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with disaster researcher, Samantha Montano about the science of preparing for and responding to disasters.

You do observe in this book that these disasters do and will continue to affect the poorest and most vulnerable first. It’s a racial justice question, a disability justice question, even in some ways a gender justice question. How do our emergency management systems need to change in order to incorporate justice?

SAMANTHA MONTANO: The research here is very clear. The experiences of communities here is very clear. FEMA’s programs specifically do not meet the needs of everyone.

We may all go through a hurricane. But the resources that we have to evacuate, the resources that we have to actually rebuild our house– those are very different. And so when you look at communities of color, you look at low-income communities, you very often see that they are further behind in recovery as compared to whiter communities, wealthier communities.

And so, we really need a full accounting of FEMA’s programs to really understand where these disparities are coming from and what program changes need to be made to address this. We also have to acknowledge though that it isn’t only the programs within FEMA that are causing this. There is also this broader societal issue here that communities of color are more likely to live in more hazardous areas because of policies of decades past.

When you look at New Orleans and the recovery post-Katrina, you see that a community like the Lower Ninth Ward has recovered much more slowly than the whiter, wealthier neighborhoods in New Orleans. So it’s not only about addressing the policies within FEMA and within emergency management specifically, but also addressing housing policies and health care policies, economic policies that are creating this overall inequality.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That’s unfortunately all the time we have, Samantha. I want to thank you so much for joining me today.

SAMANTHA MONTANO: Thanks for having me.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, Sam Montano is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on Cape Cod. Her book is Disasterology, Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis. You can read an excerpt on our website sciencefriday.com/disaster. I’m Christie Taylor.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thanks for that story, Christie. One last thing. One of the great movers and shakers in physics, Steven Weinberg passed away last Friday at the age of 88. Weinberg’s work united two of the four fundamental forces of nature for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

He was always eager to explain hair-herding concepts in physics in terms we could all understand as he did as a guest on Science Friday in 2009.

STEVEN WEINBERG: We understand the way particles and forces work down to a certain scale of distances, maybe 100th or 1000th the size of an atomic nucleus. But when you get to distances smaller than that, for example, light waves with a wavelength less than that, we really don’t know how they behave. The laws of physics are not well understood.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Condolences to his family and friends.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

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