WELCOME to the Observer's all-hazards issue.
The Natural Hazards Center’s mission is to “advance and communicate knowledge on hazards mitigation and disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.” In doing so, we use an all-hazards and interdisciplinary framework—meaning our work focuses on emergencies and disasters caused by all threats, whether natural, technological, or human-caused. Our scope, however, hasn’t always included all hazards. As the Center’s name implies, we once focused more intensively on hazards perceived as acts of nature.
To understand how we have progressed to this all-hazards framework over the years, it is helpful to look at our history. The Natural Hazards Center concept originated from a research project carried out in the early 1970s by geographers, sociologists, and other social scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder. This project, which was led by Gilbert White, involved an extensive analysis of the state of natural hazards research in the United States and had two aims. One was “to provide a more balanced and comprehensive basis for spending taxpayer dollars on hazard reduction programs.” The second was “to be more systematic in identifying research needs related to hazards” (Myers, 1993: 42-43).
While working on what would become the first Assessment of Research on Natural Hazards, this group of social scientists soon realized that the people responsible for hazards management and emergency response did not regularly communicate with those carrying out hazards and disaster research and vice versa. This lack of communication prompted White and his coauthor, Eugene Haas, to include a recommendation for the creation of a natural hazards clearinghouse as part of the assessment.
A year after the publication of the first assessment, White formed the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center. Central to his initiative was—and still is— its clearing house activities. Today these activities include the publication and distribution of the Natural Hazards Observer, Disaster Research, the curation of a large library and website, and the organization of the annual Workshop. By creating a clearinghouse, White and his team of graduate students and professional staff hoped to efficiently distribute information on hazards and disasters to scholars, citizens, practitioners, and policy makers; but also to connect these individuals to one another.
While the initial research project focused on natural hazards, the Center has long focused on disasters that can’t be attributed to nature. For instance, White—who was a prominent geographer known for his work in flooding and water management—also studied technological hazards, such as dam and levee failures. Under the leadership of Dennis Mileti, a sociologist and Natural Hazards Center director from 1994 to 2003, the scope of the Center widened further. The focal point became the societal aspects of both natural and technological disasters. Social scientists like Mileti have long argued that the agent of an event—whether natural or technological—matter less than its implications on human populations.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, resulted in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and led to the reorganization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the purview of DHS. This, in some ways, further blurred the lines between natural, technological, and terrorist threats; and again shifted the focus of the Center’s work.
The Hazards Center has remained responsive to disaster developments, as well as governmental reorganization and prioritization in terms of various hazards and threats. Today we provide information that furthers understanding about preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience for all hazards—natural, technological, biological, environmental, and human-caused. Aside from the social impacts of disaster, the Center also examines the engineering, policy, and public health consequences of events.
This Observer celebrates the breadth of work that now so clearly marks our hazards and disaster research community. Accordingly, this issue includes articles about the willingness of emergency medical service providers to respond during disease outbreaks, public perceptions of Zika, pets and disaster resilience, inmates as emergency responders, earthquakes and oil drilling in the Los Angeles area, and the amazing story of one of Hurricane Katrina’s many heroes, Kenny Bellau. Additionally, Kathleen Tierney reflects on her time as director over the past 13 years, while incoming director, Lori Peek, speaks to the Center’s mission and future.
I hope you’ll enjoy this Observer, and I hope you will join me in thanking our past director and enthusiastically welcoming our next.
Elke Weesjes, Editor
White, Gilbert F., J. Eugene Haas. 1975. Assessment of Research on Natural Hazards, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Myers, Mary Fran. 1993. “Bridging the Gap between Research and Practice: The Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, Vol. 11. No. 1. Pages 41-54.