I BECAME the director of the Natural Hazards Center in August 2003. It was less than two years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina was still two years away. The late Mary Fran Myers, an icon in the field of hazards studies, was still serving as co-director of the Center and the Department of Homeland Security was less than one year old.
In 2003, our research community did not know exactly what to expect from the establishment of DHS, but many of us believed that creating a vast bureaucracy was not the best way to combat terrorist networks. The nation was still very much in the grip of fears about terrorism, and for a time it seemed as if the federal government had lost sight of the importance of hazards and disasters in its extensive efforts to combat terrorist threats.
Katrina changed all that, as the world watched the bungled response with horror and outrage. Katrina was a watershed event in the history of the Natural Hazards Center and in the field of disaster research. The Center funded an unprecedented number of Quick Response Grant studies that served as the basis for dissertations, journal articles, and books. Researchers began to look at disasters with new eyes as a consequence of Katrina, emphasizing the multiple ways in which race, class, gender, and other axes of inequality shape the chances and recovery experiences of those who are affected. The field also grew in size and diversity, as scholars who had previously had little interest in disasters became aware of them as a lens through which to view social structure and social dynamics.
I have so many positive things to say about our work during my time at the Center that they could easily fill this entire issue of the Observer. We did our part to spark dialogue between the climate change and disaster research communities and acted as honest brokers in important debates related to hazard insurance, homeland security, the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, and other policy issues. We provided spaces where members of the research community could interact with government officials and practitioners. Over the years, our annual workshop grew in size and offered ancillary meeting opportunities for U.S. and international organizations such as the Natural Hazards Mitigation Association and the International Research Committee on Disasters. Other groups increasingly asked us to organize meetings and other events around the time of the Workshop. We revamped our information products to make them more informative, attractive, and user-friendly, and we modernized our library to make materials accessible virtually everywhere in the world. We also like to think that we did our part to help the research community become more diverse with respect to race, ethnicity, and gender—for example through our partnership with the Bill Anderson Fund.
There is much to celebrate, but there is also reason for serious concern going forward and our new Center director and the entire hazards community have their work cut out for them. For the sake of this and future generations, it would be utter folly to reduce U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, tamper with funding for global climate change research, or interfere with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As we saw with the 2008 financial crisis, deregulation—both in the financial sector and other arenas—can lead to risk buildup, moral hazard, and disaster. If our social safety net is weakened, more people will be vulnerable to future disasters. Going forward, social science research will likely be under attack as never before, but without such research, how can we have any hope of understanding the complex society and world in which we live? We are hearing a great deal about increased investments in our nation’s infrastructure, and that is something to celebrate. We all look forward to needed advancements in transportation, communication, and other systems. But our nation also includes a civic infrastructure that must be preserved and renewed. That infrastructure is the foundation of resilience in all its forms. If we allow our social fabric to fray, we do so at our own peril.
These are some of the many reasons why the work of the Hazards Center continues to be so important and why it merits continued support. It has been an honor and a joy to direct the Center for the past thirteen years and I deeply value the many friendships and collaborations I have developed over that time. Beginning on January 1, 2017, I will continue my research and writing activities as a research professor in the Institute of Behavioral Science. I look forward to playing a role in the activities of the Hazards Center and to assisting our new director as the Center continues to evolve.