In discussing the rising incidence and cost of natural disasters, University of Colorado Sociology Professor Lori Peek invokes the words of Gilbert White, the late founder of CU's Natural Hazards Center, of which she is now the director.

"Gilbert famously said, 'Floods may be acts of God, but flood losses are acts of man,' " she said in an interview Wednesday.

Peek cites White's words to capture a truth that she has come to embrace after an initial stint at the Natural Hazards Center as a graduate research assistant, then returning there in January 2017 as director. A natural disaster is not an event in a vacuum; its causes, its effects and humans' immediate response often bring into play a broad array of disciplines, spanning Earth sciences, civil engineering and sociology — as prominent examples — along with the obvious impact on first responders and relief workers.

It is with that awareness that Peek tackles a new challenge for the hazards center, with the National Science Foundation having announced a $3 million, five-year grant to host Converge. It is being touted as a one-of-a-kind facility.

Its mission will be to help social scientists and engineers, who have increasingly converged at the scenes of natural disasters across the globe, interviewing survivors and seeking ways to make property and people more resilient, to better coordinate their work and to see that it is carried out with sensitivity to victims.

Katrina experience resonated

Converge has been funded through the NSF's Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure initiative, a $64 million investment seeking to make the nation more resilient to natural hazards.


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"Disasters occur at the interface of the natural, built and social environments and the only way to understand these events in their full context is by having natural and social scientists, and engineers, working together," Joseph Wartman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and director of the NHERI Natural Hazards Reconnaissance Facility, said in a statement.

Worldwide economic losses from earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other climate-related disasters totaled $2.908 trillion over the past 20 years, an increase of 151 percent from the previous 20-year period, according to a recent United Nations report.

Highlighting the influence of climate change, the report stated that 77 percent of that figure, or, $2.245 trillion, stemmed from extreme weather events.

Peek saw many of the dynamics and issues central to the impact of the rising societal costs of natural disasters when she arrived in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina to study its impact on school children. That produced two books, "Children of Katrina," co-authored with Alice Fothergill, and "Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora," which she co-authored with Lynn Weber.

"Katrina was a monumental event and scholars from all across the nation converged on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast," Peek said. "I saw the power of science and how important the science was, and really how much local researchers were affected, as they were attempting to coordinate, as they were also being affected by the disasters.

"That helped plant the seed; there are all these researchers out there, and how can we work together to make sure our research is coordinated, and make sure it is honoring local people and local cultures that are being so badly damaged in those disasters?"

'Repetitive loss events'

Toward that end, Converge is establishing a new Reconnaissance Leadership Corps, comprised of natural and social scientists and engineers, to offer training and to develop best practice documents on safety considerations, as well as working with vulnerable populations, and helping researchers establish a scientific agenda before entering a disaster zone.

The center also intends to make social science a key piece of the engineering research infrastructure initiative network, through offering technological and financial support for research on the human impacts of natural hazards. It is teaming with the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington to develop new data sharing platforms and mobile phone data collection apps to aid in scientists' collaborations.

With disasters coming more frequently and affecting more people — not only through the intensity of extreme weather and climatological events, but also the wider distribution of growing populations and decaying infrastructure — Peek said it's important to look closely at how decisions are made about the focus of researchers' limited time and resources.

"Oftentimes, the disaster research field has really focused on large-scale events affecting large populations," Peek said. "We're seeing not just an increase in the billion-dollar disasters, but we're also seeing more repetitive nuisance flooding, repetitive loss events that are affecting communities across the nation, as well.

"One of the greatest challenges is setting the scientific agenda in a context of increasing disaster activity. I think that's going to be figuring out what we do, why we do it, figuring out the scientific and ethical anchor to what we're doing."

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan