A sign hangs on a tree in front of a house damaged by Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., in 2018.
Economically disadvantaged populations make up a disproportionate number of those affected by natural hazards, like Hurricane Michael, above, which struck Panama City, Fla., in 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Before and After the Disaster

Cover of March 2021 issue of Eos

By any measures, 2020 was an extraordinarily challenging year—and natural hazards played no small role. In North America alone, a record number of Atlantic storms caused nearly 400 deaths and billions of dollars in damage, wildfires burned nearly 9 million acres in 13 U.S. states, and multiple earthquakes of significant magnitude damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and buildings in Puerto Rico. Worldwide, COVID-19 caused more than 1.5 million deaths, and storm and monsoon flooding affected millions across Asia.

As climate change leads to a growing number of severe weather events and as natural hazards increasingly affect communities on multiple fronts, both scientists and policymakers have a challenging task: ensuring that solutions and recommendations arising from scientific research are communicated effectively and applied equitably.

The latter challenge is particularly critical. According to the World Bank, economically disadvantaged populations make up a disproportionate number of those affected by natural hazards worldwide. Such populations live in low-lying areas prone to flooding, in older buildings less able to withstand earthquakes or to seal out hazardous air, and in the path of increasingly frequent and powerful storms.

These communities “are first more exposed, and then more vulnerable,” said Alan Kwok, disaster resilience director for Northern California Grantmakers, a regional funding organization. In the United States, residents of low-income communities are simultaneously less able to move away from hazardous places and less able—due to time and resource constraints—to prepare for or respond to disasters. “Financial resources are a huge predictor of whether you’re prepared and can recover,” Kwok said.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, nearly a million of the region’s residents were impoverished, and communities of color in New Orleans were particularly vulnerable. In Puerto Rico, more than 40% of the population was living in poverty when Hurricane Maria caused widespread devastation in 2017. In both instances, failures in government response were met with criticism and deeply underscored disparities in access to resources and the ability to recover and rebuild.

“The approach we were taking was extremely ineffective and also extremely unjust,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Montano received firsthand experience with recovery efforts in New Orleans while working with nonprofits in the aftermaths of Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “What I saw when I looked around was that all of these needs were going unmet, especially in communities of color throughout the city.”

Kwok notes that when speaking about the increased need for hazard mitigation and response in vulnerable communities, it’s important to recognize the difference between an equality approach and an equity approach. An equality approach distributes aid, for example, regardless of background, while an equity approach takes individual circumstances into consideration. “If we’re looking at equity, we know that [certain] communities, because of decades and decades of disinvestment, are coming into natural hazard events much more vulnerable…. If we’re going to support these communities in their response and recovery, more investment is needed to ensure that they get back on their feet.”

Connecting the Science

As with nearly all issues related to natural hazards, the challenge of increasing community preparedness and building resilience begins with science. Sophisticated earthquake early-warning systems, increasingly accurate storm forecasting, and innovative flood risk and flood mitigation projects provide communities with the tools they need to respond to impending hazard events, and infrastructure design and engineering improvements help to reduce the damage suffered during and after hazards.

“The fact that we can look back at research that’s 70 years old and say ‘this still hasn’t been integrated into policy’ is a suggestion that there’s been a failure there.”

Yet even as the science exists to forecast hazards and protect against the damage they inflict, the most vulnerable communities continue to feel the brunt of each event. The disconnect, said Montano, lies at the intersection of science and policy.

“We’re very clear in our research about who is vulnerable in our communities, why they’re vulnerable, and what we need to do to make them less vulnerable,” she said. “The fact that we can look back at research that’s 70 years old and say ‘This still hasn’t been integrated into policy’ is a suggestion that there’s been a failure there.”

Montano said that for scientists to address these issues, it’s important not only to center more vulnerable populations in their research but also to ensure that their results are being driven home to policymakers. “There are a lot of disaster researchers, emergency management researchers, who understand that the work that they’re doing could bring immense value to policy and practice, but there are significant barriers for those two worlds to really be bridged,” she said.

Among those barriers for scientists, according to seismologist Lucy Jones, are knowledge transfer and communication challenges, lack of direct collaboration, and an internal culture that fails to reward involvement in policy discussions. Jones is the founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, which advocates using science to develop community resilience. While with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), she spent a year partnering with the Los Angeles mayor’s office on seismic policies.

“If you present a problem without a solution, you disincentivize action.”

“Our job [as scientists] is to say, ‘Here’s what the problem is,’ and not how to solve it,” she said. “But if you present a problem without a solution, you disincentivize action.”

Jones said it’s important for physical scientists to collaborate with social scientists to better connect with the human side of research. “There’s a lot of information in the social sciences that helps you do a better job,” she said, emphasizing that physical scientists must also learn how to apply the results of social science research. “[It’s] an acknowledgment that logical reasoning is not the only factor that goes into people’s decisionmaking.”

It’s also important to understand the nuances of different locations and communities and their individual needs, according to Gina Tonn, a senior water resources engineer with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. According to Tonn, research conducted on a broad national or geographic scale doesn’t necessarily apply at the local level, where practitioners may be thinking more about how individual homeowners or members of a small community are managing risk. And even at the community level, requirements vary. “The mitigation strategy is going to be really different for a wealthier coastal community versus a coastal community with fewer resources,” she noted.

One way to better understand what individual communities need is to involve their members in the development of ideas from the very beginning, said Tim Brown, a research professor in the atmospheric sciences division of the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute and director of the Western Regional Climate Center. “It allows us to understand their need, how they’re seeing the result as it evolves,” he said. “Working together, we can try and achieve a common outcome.”

According to Brown, it helps to have a broad and expanded network and to develop rapport and trust with communities, in part by serving on committees and attending meetings. “We’re constantly hearing about what’s going on on the ground and thinking, ‘How can we connect that with what we know about science?’”

Scientists should, above all, be proactive. At AGU, the Hazards Equity Working Group brings together natural hazards scientists who want their research to have meaningful applications and aims to provide them with the tools they need to work with an equity lens. Among their recommendations: Make demographic and census data available with research, and think about risk management communication and how factors such as local messaging can influence behavior.

In addition, AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange connects scientists with communities that have identified challenges (many of which are related to natural hazards) that they would like to address with scientific input. This community science outlook works to place community needs at the forefront of the process of defining the types of questions that are asked and approaches that are pursued to inform resilience-building efforts.

A Seat at the Table

For scientists, practitioners, and policymakers to codevelop and implement ideas—and for those ideas to effectively address inequities in the system—they must first find a way to speak to one another.

“Oftentimes miscommunication isn’t intentional; it’s just that we’re all speaking different languages,” said Natasha Malmin, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Public Policy Program at Georgia State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Malmin spent 7 years as a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she focused on climate change research and disaster preparedness and response. Today she’s a fellow of the William Averette Anderson Fund, which seeks to increase representation in mitigation-related research fields by supporting people of color who are pursuing hazards and disaster studies and providing a path for their work to reach other scientists, policymakers, and community organizations.

“Advocates can help broaden the narrative and refine the problem. I wouldn’t be able to articulate the cascading effects of hazards and how policies can shape and decide who’s vulnerable and who’s not if I didn’t live in those communities.”

“We have the structure, through appropriate lobbying, for scientists to have a seat at the table,” Malmin said. But even when policymakers integrate science, the research may not be expansive enough to encompass both physical and social hazards. In other words, it may be missing the human factor.

“Within the world of science, we may give, literally, a seat but not necessarily a voice,” Malmin said. “We may give a voice, but the language isn’t there…. It goes back to, ‘How are we understanding what the problem is?’”

Malmin said that as a start, community advocates should join scientists and policymakers at the table. “Advocates can help broaden the narrative and refine the problem,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to articulate the cascading effects of hazards and how policies can shape and decide who’s vulnerable and who’s not if I didn’t live in those communities.”

According to Beth Butler, executive director of New Orleans–based A Community Voice, the issues faced by affected communities often begin with policies that exacerbate, or even create, vulnerabilities. When Hurricane Laura hit Lake Charles, La., in August 2020, residents of the industrial city—where the poverty rate is more than double the national rate—lost their homes and faced damage to their communities even as they coped with worsening COVID-19 rates. The city, said Butler, already suffers from unmitigated development on land that is cheap and accessible but increasingly vulnerable to flooding. “They need to connect with the people who live there,” Butler said of policymakers. “They need the representation of lower- and moderate-income people who represent groups that are actually involved in these fights…. You have to have the people involved.”

Butler said that to effectively communicate issues such as climate change and its role in weather-related hazard events, it’s also necessary for policymakers to understand the culture of regional communities, such as those along the Gulf Coast. These are communities, she said, that are tied to the land—to fishing, farming, and a legacy of inhabitance going back hundreds of years or, for Indigenous communities, even further. “These considerations have to be brought into the whole panoply of issues and campaigns around how to mitigate…the climate change [effects that are] wreaking havoc on these families who live in coastal communities” and other areas vulnerable to such hazards as tornadoes and flooding.

Though community advocates may increasingly find a place in the conversation, progress in collaboration between even scientists and policymakers alone can be noteworthy. Pamela Williams, executive director of the BuildStrong Coalition, emphasized the important role scientists played recently in passing legislation that directly benefits vulnerable communities. Williams was the principal architect and negotiator of the federal Disaster Recovery Reform Act, which was signed into law in 2018. The reforms incorporated, in part, lessons learned from 2017’s deadly and destructive natural hazards, which included some of the costliest hurricanes seen in the United States. A key accomplishment was the allocation of 6% of annual disaster spending for predisaster mitigation, administered through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC).

“We were able to successfully participate in that conversation and drive that policy because we brought new players to the table [who provided] significant amounts of risk data,” Williams explained. “It was truly a conversation and a legislative policy discussion founded in science and data, and that’s how we were able to get a bipartisan agreement…. We [showed] that investments in mitigation have [anywhere] from a $4 to $11 return on investment—and we had the professionals and data to back that up.”

For Williams, one of the biggest challenges when working with scientists is translating scientific data into more generally digestible information. “One of the things that I have been most surprised about through the entire mitigation conversation is how stovepiped we all are,” she said. “BuildStrong endeavors to break down those stovepipes and get everyone talking, because…a lot of things get lost in translation.”

“We understand how to retrofit a bridge or elevate a house, but we don’t necessarily know how to [approach] social mitigation or investments in human capital.”

Williams said she particularly appreciates those researchers who are able to have one foot in science and one foot in policy discussions. They help tell a necessary story in a way that better demonstrates the risks being faced. “We have to show [communities] that there are very real steps, tested and grounded in science, that they can take to at least reduce that risk and to become more resilient,” she said.

Derrick Hiebert is a hazard mitigation strategist with Washington State’s King County Emergency Management. He believes that to get the information needed, practitioner involvement should begin as early as the design of the research idea. And the research itself must include social factors to be practical.

“What I could use from researchers is more information on what I need to do to change the vulnerability equation for a place,” he said. “I need to know what the root cause is…because we understand how to retrofit a bridge or elevate a house. But we don’t necessarily know how to [approach] social mitigation or investments in human capital…. [Which] investments in a community are going to have the greatest return when it comes to reducing risk and reducing disparity in the way people suffer disaster outcomes?”

Hiebert acknowledged that knowing how to collaborate with scientists can be a challenge, but he thinks that in some cases, such collaboration can come down to a quick phone call, to “maintaining relationships as opposed to trying to create formal engagements.” His advice to researchers: “Develop relationships, get to know people, get involved in the emergency management community, and people will start listening.”

Toward a More Collaborative Future

Despite the many barriers and challenges that exist, several programs currently under way prove that scientists, practitioners, and policymakers are ready to be on the same page.

Anne Wein, a USGS principal investigator based in California, analyzes data from multihazard scenarios such as ShakeOut, ARkStorm, and HayWired—large, collaborative, interdisciplinary projects with input from Earth scientists, engineers, and social scientists. In an effort to better connect with decisionmaking, Wein and other team members translate scientific data from the scenarios into information about societal consequences.

“The beauty of these scenario projects is that we are cocreating with partners and stakeholders,” she said, citing as an example collaborative work with regional economists for the HayWired project. “We are really working side by side with people.”

“In the bigger-picture policy conversation, we absolutely need to recognize that there are people who remain unseen for a variety of reasons, and we can’t fail to address their needs.”

Hiebert cites FEMA’s BRIC program as one with an outlying focus on equity and collaboration. The program incentivizes, for instance, public outreach and community and agency partnerships, as well as projects that benefit socially vulnerable populations and those that account for future conditions and climate change development trends. Hiebert—who along with other emergency management professionals contributed to BRIC’s development—believes such incentives are groundbreaking. With this program, he said, “We’ve institutionalized the idea that places that are more likely to suffer loss and recover slowly get more investment, or at least prioritized investment.”

Said Williams, whose role with the BuildStrong Coalition focused initially on ensuring that BRIC would be as successful and effective as possible, “In the bigger-picture policy conversation, we absolutely need to recognize that there are people who remain unseen for a variety of reasons, and we can’t fail to address their needs…and that’s why we are such large advocates of systemic investments in resilience.”

As part of resilience-building, Williams highlighted the need for effective messaging, beginning at the policy-planning level with creative partnerships that can help present a unified statement.

At the local level, Wein said, it’s important first to listen to community members to understand what they consider their own vulnerabilities to be. “We’ve got all this wonderful science,” she said, “but how does it resonate with the community?”

Like Brown and Malmin, Jones believes that to understand a community’s needs, it’s important to engage on a personal level. “Be part of your own community,” she said. “I have the most impact when I’m working with people who already know me.” She added that leadership at academic institutions should explore how they can support those who want to be involved in policy. “Cultural change really does have to happen,” she said, and though it may not be something one advocate can accomplish, individuals can help shift the outlook and the practical policies of their institutions.

Rather than use the term science communication, which she believes implies a unilateral process, Jones talks about science activation, or empowering people to use science. She works with young scientists on how to engage with policymakers, including through interaction with both state and federal legislators. With the help of such experiences, these students may become the people who, as Williams advocated, bridge the science–policy gap and tell the stories that will lead to action.

“Fundamentally,” Jones said, “until we change how the larger society, including policymakers, [is] trained to use scientific information, we aren’t going to solve the problem.”

Author Information

Korena Di Roma Howley (korenahowley@gmail.com), Science Writer


Howley, K. D. R. (2021), Natural hazards have unnatural Impacts impacts—what more can science do?, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO154552. Published on 23 February 2021.

Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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