The real world? Very much a threat.

This week I’m at the 2011 Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop. This is the 36th such annual event. For years it was held in Boulder, home of the Workshop’s host – the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Center of the University of Colorado. Over time, the meeting, which now draws about 400 participants, outgrew its original venue, so it’s moved down the road to Broomfield. Some of the old timers – there are a few at this year’s meeting who were present at the Creation – say the meeting has lost some of its character, but to me, and many others, it still has a strong pull.

Why?

[Perhaps because of a phenomenon that psychologists call “imprinting.” Here’s the analogy. Take a chick hatching from an egg. Chances are good – have been so ever since the beginning of time – that the first thing that chick will see is the mother hen. All well and good! But psychologists have learned that if instead the chick first sees a cat, then the chick will think that cat is its mom. For the rest of its chick-life, the chick will follow that cat around…which, cats being cats…may not be all that long.]

It was here, at some of the earlier hazards workshops, dating back to the late 1980’s, that I started learning much of what I know about the natural and social causes of environmental hazards and disasters. Before then, my view had been simple. Hurricanes and tornadoes caused destruction because high winds blew things down. Floods carried buildings and people away. Limitations in weather observations and predictions meant that warnings were flawed. Everyone knew that!

Wrong.

Or at least, incomplete.

Instead, at these meetings I was confronted with engineers talking about how inadequate building codes and shoddy construction allowed those buildings to fail. Geographers explained how inappropriate land use had people building, living, and working in the floodplain. Anthropologists pointed out that people’s history, culture, and attachment to place got them started in the floodplain, and kept them there, generations after they should have packed up and moved out. Economists allowed as how poverty forced the poor to live in the floodplain (or atop the seismic fault zone, and so on). Three specialties – three complementary (not inconsistent!) interpretations of cause and effect. Communication scholars produced evidence that even when the numerical weather predictions were spot on, problems with the messaging of the warnings, or the visuals that were part of the warning, or the simple fact that warning devices malfunctioned, compromised public safety. Maybe the warning was only broadcast in English. Maybe it didn’t reach certain groups – tourists and migrant workers, say.

And so on. Emergency managers would explain how funding limitations, or political considerations, or people’s resistance to authority would compromise the best designed warning strategies and evacuation plans. And then there were all these reports and papers and findings dealing with emergency response and recovery and reconstruction or their lack.

My head would spin. Coping with the Earth’s extremes was at once more complicated and more daunting than I’d realized.

The workshops today still very much bear the stamp of the man behind them – Gilbert Fowler White. Impossible to do justice to this truly extraordinary person in a few words. Born in 1911, he has been called the “father of floodplain management” In the 1930’s, shortly after graduating from college, he worked in the White House for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this role. I’m told there is film footage showing the two of them visiting flood sites together. White earned his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Chicago in 1942. A Quaker and a pacifist, he was a conscientious objector during War II, serving in the American Friends Service Committee. While aiding war refugees in France he was interned by the Nazis. After the war he became president of Haverford College in 1946. At the time, he was the youngest college president in the country. There’s much more to this personal history; he lived until 2006.

Let’s leave it at this. For his entire career White strove to reduce the losses to hazards of all types, make access to safe, plentiful drinking water a basic human right, foster world peace, and live sustainably, protecting the environment and ecosystems. He was a scholar but he was also keenly interested in practice.  He believed that academics, policymakers, and practitioners ought to collaborate for the benefit of society.

But it wasn’t just that he was brilliant and that he held lofty goals. His approach to achieving these ends was every bit as high-minded. He modeled integrity. He was courageous. He was frank. He at one and the same time would challenge and encourage everyone around him to be and do their best. He was loving.

Historians today make much of how the strengths and abilities of George Washington shaped a nation. In the same way, Gilbert White has shaped a community of hazards science and practice. The entire field bears his stamp, whether knowingly or unconsciously. Of course, Gilbert [like George] had help. Russell Dynes, Henry Quarantelli, Bob Kates, Ian Burton, and many, many others thought and debated and questioned. But White loomed large in their midst.

Gilbert thought the meetings should draw the best scholarship. But he didn’t see how that could thrive unless theory was put to the test in practice. So he brought the emergency managers, and the mayors, and county officials, the architects and the doctors, the police and firemen, to the table. He invited the insurance industry and the all the folks maintaining critical infrastructure. He brought the NGO’s and the faith-based organizations into the room. Attendance was by invitation, and still is so, but one third of the participants are first timers. The world comes, not just experts from the United States. The seasoned veterans are there, but students and early-career professionals are present in equal numbers.

Recent months have seen a larger-than-normal spate of disasters. Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, Japan. Flooding throughout the United States. Record-setting numbers of tornadoes. The world is indeed a dangerous place.

What do the experts – whether scholars or practitioners – have to say? More in the next post from the workshop.

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2 Responses to The real world? Very much a threat.

  1. eve says:

    thanks bill .. again you have captured what i’ve been thinking but have been unable to put into words.

  2. Pingback: Do the right thing. | Living on the Real World

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