“What do you hope to be doing five years from now?”
That is the question Gilbert White, the famed geographer and visionary founder of the Natural Hazards Center, asked me in the early spring of 2004. We were sitting together—me on the carpeted floor, he in a rocking recliner chair—as we waited for a chance to visit with Mary Fran Myers, who was then the co-director of the Hazards Center. Mary Fran was receiving in-home care for cancer, and we were reflecting on the ways that she had made it her life’s work to bring people and knowledge together to reduce hazards losses. Thus, when Gilbert posed that pivotal question, I was certain he wanted to know more than what title or affiliation I hoped to hold in the future. He was asking me what I wanted to do with my life.
At the time, I was a graduate student in sociology at CU-Boulder. I had also spent the past four and a half years working as a research assistant under the guidance of the inimitable Hazards Center director, Dennis Mileti. So I was familiar with the gentle ways that Gilbert would ask big questions of those around him, although I never felt fully prepared to answer him. Yet, that day gave me special pause. My heart was filled with sadness over Mary Fran’s illness, and my head was clouded with uncertainty as I struggled to finish my dissertation. As I sat with Gilbert, though, I felt a sense of calm clarity. I knew by then that I would pursue an academic career, and I told him that I was certain I would continue to collaborate with hazards and disaster researchers and practitioners working in vulnerable communities. When pressed by Gilbert to explain why, I remember saying simply, “Because they are the most caring and dedicated people I’ve ever known, and they are doing some of the most important work I can imagine.” Blue eyes twinkling, he just smiled and nodded.
More than a decade later, I still feel the same way about this precious and vital community. It is thus with great honor and a profound sense of responsibility that I prepare to assume the position of director of the Natural Hazards Center and professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder. In anticipation of this transition, I have spent much time thinking about the Center’s past as well as its future.
On the one hand, it seems to me that the core mission and aim of the Natural Hazards Center remains as critical as ever. Gilbert captured it perfectly back in 1976, in this short newsletter announcement: “The Center, through the Observer and its other activities, attempts to put potential users of research, such as federal, state, or local officials, or insurance and business executives who are concerned with disaster preparedness or assistance activities, in touch with those who are doing research on these subjects. Its aim is to help both groups to develop methods for applying the results of such research to policies and operations, and to determine questions that need further study.”
On the other hand, the world has grown and shifted dramatically in the four decades since the Center’s founding. There were just over 4 billion people living on the planet in 1975, the year that the Assessment of Research on Natural Hazards (commonly known as the “First Assessment”) was published by Gilbert F. White and sociologist J. Eugene Haas. Today the global population has exceeded 7.4 billion. The U.S. population has also expanded, jumping from 216 million in 1975, to 324 million in 2016. Population growth combined with climate change, unsustainable development and inadequate land-use planning, rising inequality, and a host of other social, political, and environmental challenges has translated into disproportionate loss of life among the world’s poorest people, and lopsided economic losses in the wealthiest communities and nations.
So in this moment of looming environmental threats that are without precedent, it seems ever more urgent that we come together as a hazards and disaster community and ask: What are we going to do to understand, articulate, confront, and reduce the risks that we face as a nation and a world? How are we going to mobilize to ensure effective top-down policy interventions that are informed by research evidence generated by scholars in this field, while also encouraging grassroots, bottom-up advocacy work in communities? How might the decades of accumulated knowledge from this field be applied toward creating a more just, equitable, and sustainable world?
These are some of the “forever questions” that Gilbert regularly introduced, and ones that Dennis Mileti institutionalized with the publication of Disasters by Design (widely referred to as the “Second Assessment”). I can assure you that our team here at the Hazards Center will steadfastly pursue work related to these questions. Moreover, as our community continues to expand—into new academic, private, voluntary, faith-based, and government sectors—we will engage in our traditional linking activities such as organizing the annual Hazards Workshop, maintaining the Center’s website and its large on-line and print collection through the Hazards Center Library, and publishing Disaster Research and the Observer. At the same time, we will begin a series of new mobilization strategies to ensure that the important knowledge and ideas produced by this community are moved into action. Most immediately, you will be hearing from our Center more often, as we send out requests for information and begin building a series of repositories for educators, practitioners, policy makers, journalists, and other stakeholders who we can work alongside to build a stronger culture of resilience in this nation and beyond.
I am so excited to begin working even more closely with the dedicated disaster scholars and practitioners I have long admired and the next generation of change makers I cannot wait to meet. I also hope that all of our Observer readers and users of the Center’s other products will join me in thanking the outgoing director, Kathleen Tierney, for her long and distinguished service and her scholarly leadership. We wish her all the best as she continues her important research and writing well into the future.
Here’s to 2017, to new beginnings, and to a safer, more peaceful world.