Graphic recording of the wrap-up of the 45th Annual Natural Hazards Workshop. Image created by visual recorder Alece Birnbach, with the generous support of Impact360 Alliance.

For 45 years, the director of the Natural Hazards Center has issued a summary and a call to action at the close of the annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop. As has now become a more recent tradition, I wanted to share that summary with you in this latest edition of the Director’s Corner.

First, though, a few words about the Workshop. This year, for the first time in our history, the meeting was convened entirely online because of the ongoing threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the forum was certainly different, what remained the same was our shared commitment to inquiry and the respectful exchange of information between researchers and practitioners—the characteristics that have driven the Workshop since the beginning.

As the Workshop formally opened on Monday morning, I expressed to participants how difficult it was to stare into the void of a computer screen rather than looking at everyone’s smiling and supportive faces. By the end, that void had been filled with the creativity, compassion, and courage that has defined this community that I have loved for so very long.

I sense that the seeds of Active Hope have been planted in many of those who joined us this year. Now the question is how will we cultivate them individually and collectively to ensure that they blossom and grow?

Please take care of yourself and others.

Lori Peek, Director
Natural Hazards Center

Closing Comments

How is this story going to end?

None of us can possibly know the answer to that question, not even those among us with the most rigorous measures and robust data-driven models.

So perhaps there are other questions that could also help guide us.

During his keynote address, Chris Johnstone invited us to engage with the questions of: How do you want the story to go? The story of your life? The story of our times?

When we recognize that none of know how any of this is going to end, how can we still find the courage to ask ourselves, what is the best possible thing that can happen here? Once we get clear on that question, then another one follows: How can we take individual and collective steps to move forward?

For the last three days, you have been helping to clarify the answers to these and many other enduring and ever more urgent questions that are at the core of what Active Hope is all about. It is about using all the tools available to us to take stock of the many complex realities we face, setting a vision, and then figuring out how to move forward in our own lives and together with others.

Active Hope is not about a feeling. In fact, Joanna Macy who is lead author of the book by that same name, said once in a poetic and deeply reflective interview that “I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope. It’s okay not to be optimistic… Feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out. So just be present.”

Macy continued, “The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present. And when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”

At this year’s Workshop, Michelle Montgomery of the University of Washington at Tacoma issued a similar call for us to be fully present—with ourselves and with one another—when she expressed her hope that in the “stillness of this pandemic, we can dig deep.”

But when we dig deep, we must be emotionally and intellectually prepared, because the reality we see is often stark and even devastating.

Natalie Grant of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted that the multiple disasters that are presently unfolding before us are so clearly “revealing a deeply frayed social fabric, economic inequality at its worst, and the weakened response capacity of our local, state, and federal systems.”

Carlos Martin of the Urban Institute cautioned us that “we cannot talk about hope without talking about power differences and forced despair” that emerges out of the cracks that are replete in our system. These cracks, which are generated by structural racism, economic disinvestment, and diminished opportunities, threaten to swallow us whole if we do not fully acknowledge that they are a major part of what is driving disaster losses.

Mike Byrne, now with Deloitte & Touche, has been a hazards practitioner in the public and now private sector for 42 years. In reflecting on the current reality, he noted that he is struck by the “increasing number and complexity of the problems we are confronted with, but also inspired by our growing ingenuity and enhanced capacity to respond.”

These and the many other insights we heard at the 45th Annual Natural Hazards Workshop help reveal why the first step in Active Hope involves taking stock of the complex realities we face.

In this community, and as Divya Chandresekar of the University of Utah underscored, we have been clear for quite some time that natural hazards losses are inextricably linked to racism, xenophobia, poverty, pollution, and other chronic disasters that deepen already existing disadvantages. We know that our environmental suffering is connected to our social suffering.

So then the question becomes, even in light of all this, what is the best that can happen here? For our science? Our policy? Our practice?

The good news is that this is exactly where our community thrives, in that space between the grim reality we so carefully assess and the imagined possibility of just and equitable mitigation and recovery policies informed by the best science and a commitment to fundamental human rights.

We know how to set a vision in this community, which is what the second step in Active Hope entails. We know that if we want to reduce natural hazards losses we must work just as fervently to reduce social inequality and injustice in all its forms.

Is this going to be easy? Absolutely not. As Ann Yoachim shared with us, she and her team at Tulane University grapple every day with how we can integrate data across varying scales to get at complex issues associated with justice and equity.

And Annie Vest, former state hazard mitigation officer for the State of Oklahoma, shared with us that they have long aspired to that vision, but “it is difficult to ground truth big data and policy levers” to make sure that they help, and do not unintentionally harm, the people and the places where we work.

Clarifying our collective vision and taking steps forward has perhaps never been more urgent given the clear and present threats we face. As Jennifer Santos Hernandez of the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras gently but firmly reminded us, “As we gather here at this meeting, people are dying outside.” They are dying from the pandemic and dying from all the other disasters we are facing. The elderly, people of color, low-income, and uninsured people are dying at disproportionate rates, and it does not have to be this way.

This is where the third step in the process, activating hope, takes flight.

For decades, this community has produced life-saving and life-sustaining knowledge that can better inform this moment. But it is going to take all of us. And that means, as the Rising Voices plenary panel taught us, that we need to start not by calling people out, but by calling more people in to the conversation that we are having here.

How do we do this? The starting point they recommended is to bring our whole selves to this work and to adopt a stance of trust, honor, and respect in all that we do. This work is individual, but it is also relational. Bryan Parras and so many others reminded us that “justice is a process, so it takes work and takes relationships, and it's on all of us to nurture it."

Kim Mosby of Louisiana State University encouraged us to remember that when we go into communities to begin that process and relationship building, we need to set-aside our pre-determined frameworks and our plans for a moment. Instead, she recommended that if we want to build coalitions “we must listen for the agreement that is already there.” That means, starting by asking people who they care about, while working to understand more about what matters to them in the place where they live. When we find our points of agreement—whether it is better opportunities for kids, safe housing for everyone, or clean air to breathe—wherever that point of agreement is, start there.

We do not know how this story is going to end, but I can see more clearly than ever that we stand shoulder to shoulder as we continue to move forward. Tom Hughes of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency reminded us, as he always does, that mitigation is the most challenging and rewarding work. And it is more important than ever that we get to it.

So let’s do what we can with what we have, right now. Along the way, let us never forget that even during this moment of great division and human suffering, we are also seeing unprecedented levels of compassion, sacrifice, moral courage, and generosity. How we choose to invest our energy may have a much larger impact than we can even imagine right now. As you go forth with this work, please remember to take care of yourself and others.

With that, I declare your 45th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, adjourned.