Audio Interview: Disasters

Listen: 49 min. 

On the episode of Succinct Science, SESYNC's Erin Duffy has a conversation with Dr. Lori Peek, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, about questions, such as:

  • How "natural" are natural disasters? 

  • What are the dimensions of "risk" that combine to form disasters? 

  • What is sociology and how can it be integrated with other disciplines such as engineering to reduce the risk of harm and suffering from disasters? 

Enjoy and thanks for listening!

  • About the Presenters
    Lori Peek

    Lori Peek

    Lori Peek is professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. She studies vulnerable populations in disaster and is author of Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11, co-editor of Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora, and co-author of Children of Katrina. Lori has conducted field investigations in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, the Christchurch earthquakes, the Joplin tornado, Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Matthew. She is the principal investigator for the...

    Lori Peek

    Lori Peek

    Lori Peek is professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. She studies vulnerable populations in disaster and is author of Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11, co-editor of Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora, and co-author of Children of Katrina. Lori has conducted field investigations in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, the Christchurch earthquakes, the Joplin tornado, Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Matthew. She is the principal investigator for the NSF-funded CONVERGE facility, which is dedicated to improving research coordination and advancing the ethical conduct and scientific rigor of disaster research.


    Erin Duffy

    Faculty Specialist

    Erin Duffy was a Faculty Specialist at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) from 2019 to 2023. In this role, she supported the communications team in the design and development of communication products that disseminated the vast knowledge created by SESYNC researchers around the world. Inspired by the Center’s diverse and interesting projects and participants, Erin developed a podcast called, Succinct ScienceAudio Interviews from SESYNC, to help integrate intellectually expansive information into everyday life.  

    Passionate about community, individual, and environmental...


    Erin Duffy

    Faculty Specialist

    Erin Duffy was a Faculty Specialist at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) from 2019 to 2023. In this role, she supported the communications team in the design and development of communication products that disseminated the vast knowledge created by SESYNC researchers around the world. Inspired by the Center’s diverse and interesting projects and participants, Erin developed a podcast called, Succinct ScienceAudio Interviews from SESYNC, to help integrate intellectually expansive information into everyday life.  

    Passionate about community, individual, and environmental health and well-being, Erin has worked in a variety of roles, including: environmental educator; marketing associate for a social service organization and community garden coordinator for a food bank, both through Americorps; as well as a caregiver for adults with differing physical and intellectual abilities. 

    Erin earned a bachelor's degree in Environmental Policy and Science, and she has continued to pursue educational opportunities, most recently by becoming a certified yoga instructor and positive psychology practitioner. 

  • Supporting Materials

    Full Transcript:

    Introduction: It’s in our nature to try and protect ourselves from the elements, we hunker down when things outside our control swirl, pour, and ignite around us. Sometimes these events are so extreme that we refer to them as “natural disasters.” But, is that really accurate? 

    Today, we are talking with sociologist Dr. Lori Peek …

    “There are these natural hazards out there that involve these physical processes that are a part of our natural world. But why social and behavioral scientists have so long been interested in natural hazards is because of the disaster piece.”

    Today on Succinct Science we are talking about how a sociological perspective can be applied to disasters as a way to mitigate and even help prevent harm in the face of natural hazards. Today, we’re talking about environmental sociology. 

    [Erin: So just a heads up, throughout most of this episode I can just barely contain my excitement to talk to Lori, but you know what? I’m not sorry.] 

    Erin: I am super excited to have Dr. Lori Peek here with us here today. She’s been recognized across the country by colleagues—one person even noting that: 

    Dr. Peek’s work brings empathy and vision to the literature on hazards, disasters, and environmental sociology. Her work in communities and for communities gives us the best examples of what environmental sociology can aspire to be. 

    Erin: Lori, if you wouldn't mind just introducing yourself as well.

    Lori: Oh, Erin. That was so kind and thank you for sharing those words. My affiliations are that I'm a professor in the Department of Sociology and I also direct the Natural Hazard Center, which is in the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

    Just one thing personally I'll share is that I am a Kansas native, born and bred, was raised in a little town called Waverly, Kansas, where my parents still live and run the farm that I grew up on. And so, miss the Midwest but have made Colorado my home for more than 20 years now. So that's just a little bit about me and I am so excited to talk to you today and honored, and I love SESYNC. So thank you.

    Erin: Awesome. Well, thank you. So what got me interested in talking with you today, there is a specific origin. You came to SESYNC and did a talk called What is Sociology? 

    [Erin: Here’s a little peek into the talk…

    [Lori (from video): Anyone who has ever considered becoming a sociologist or who is a sociologist has had this question posed of them: “What is sociology anyway?” We’ll say things like, well it’s the systematic study of social institutions, social interaction, and society.]

    Erin: Even though the talk was from seven years ago—day to day it’s our top video. It’s been watched 240-something thousand times. And some of these comments…

    [Erin: So what were some of these comments? Here’s a quick sampling: “This is the best lecture in history.” And my personal favorite: “I have always wanted to study sociology, but some people think the degree isn't worthwhile having. After hearing this lecture I challenge anyone who thinks badly of it. I will be pursuing my studies in sociology.” So ugh, yeah, pretty good.] 

    Erin: If you wouldn’t mind, maybe just give us an idea of what you talked about in this video.

    Lori: Oh, absolutely. And thank you for that. And Erin, I have to say that's the closest I've ever gone to going viral. And so there are so many things I want to say. 

    Lori: But, I guess actually I want to start somewhere slightly different to say something about what gave me the opportunity to give that lecture. I actually had the opportunity to travel to SESYNC with a little cohort of sociologists as part of this immersion program where we were able to deliver a series of lectures to these postdocs from many different disciplines. And so there were the natural scientists, some fellow social scientists in the room, and as is SESYNC's beautiful orientation to the world, there were all these different people from all these different disciplines.

    But our week was about learning about sociology. And so it was just an extraordinary week to get to be in this small room with the small cohort of scholars, but then to hear from you and to know that because of SESYNC's web presence, that it's now reached many more people, I'm so happy about that. 

    [Transition music]

    [Lori (from video): One of the challenges with starting any kind of lecture like this, with defining: What is sociology? What is our discipline? Is that it’s hard to define it because sociology is almost…everything.]

    Mostly, when I'm teaching, ‘What is sociology?’, I have the luxury and the pleasure of being in a classroom with my students for 16 weeks.

    And so this was actually quite a challenge to boil this long-standing discipline that I love so much down into what is the essence of what it is that we do. 

    But the hook that I ended up landing on for the lecture was that sociology is a science, it's a social science, and we have particular theories and methods that inform our social science, but it's also a way of viewing the world. And as sociologists, we look for patterns in the world.

    [Erin: Here Lori describes a metaphor, put forth by sociologist Kai Erikson, for understanding why patterns are so important to the sociological understanding of human behavior.] 

    [Lori (from video): If you want to think about what is a sociological perspective, think about what your experience is walking along the streets of New York City—a big city, a diverse city, a cosmopolitan city. At street level, we would encounter a number of individuals and we would see the contours and textures of their faces, the clothing they were wearing, the pace at which they were walking. And we might begin to make up things about those people: We might imagine that the man in the middle in the yellow shirt, with the bag over his shoulder—he may be rushing along to work; while the man slightly behind him holding the H&M bag—we may assume that he's a tourist who's come to this city to shop. And so at that ground level we see the biography and we imagine things about individual stories and life histories. 

    But what Kai says, is, if you want to understand a sociological perspective what you might have to do is go to one of the many many tall buildings that ring New York City and you would climb up, maybe let's say we climbed up to the 14th floor. And then if we look down on that city, all of a sudden we would no longer see individual faces, we would no longer see the clothing or the contours of one's face instead what we would begin to see are a series of patterns. 

    And, in fact, it might be astonishing to us exactly how patterned something that moments before seemed chaotic and incredibly diverse from the 14th floor all of a sudden we'd start to realize the color of the cars and how frequently the color is yellow. We might start to see how patterned people are in terms of when they stop at a street corner and when they begin to walk and how they move and how they shift and so forth. And so, much of what we're trying to do is to figure out these patterns and these conditions that help make society work or what are the patterns and conditions that are present when society doesn't function or doesn't work.] 

    Lori: And that is what we’re all about. And oftentimes we're looking for patterns in terms of family structure, in terms of how communities are organized, in terms of what happens after major disruptions such as a disaster. 

    But at the end of the day, that is part of our task and our contribution to the broader field of social sciences writ large, and how we oftentimes connect to other disciplines in engineering and the physical sciences and so forth. 

    Erin: Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of reasons why I think it was a really powerful video for people, but I know when I was listening to it, I just kept feeling like, "Oh, I could see that applied to my life in this way or that way." It made me think of this one time I was driving and I was tired, so I pulled over into a neighborhood and I was trying to take a nap, and these cars kept driving by [Erin: How rude].

    And I started to think, "Oh, wow, we think we have all of these individual things that we're focused on. We're trying to get to the grocery store, whatever.” But if you pull back, it was like a three-minute interval, and there was this pattern that emerged where I was like, "Interesting—we think we live in our own boxes, but we're this bigger whole." 

    Lori: I love that example. And what that sparks for me too is just how deeply interconnected we are too, that this world is patterned in particular ways and that there are deep interconnections. And I love that insight. And I was going to tell you too, Erin, those comments you shared were so beautiful. And one of them that really resonated with me that I was thinking, I also hear from my students so often is my parent and, “What is sociology? Why would you go into that?” There are many more recognizable disciplines perhaps out there where people go, "Oh, I've heard of that, and I could feel a job that's attached to that one day." And I'm hoping maybe what resonated for people too was just more generally, whether it's sociology or not, is finding that discipline that ignites your passion and helps you to see those connections in the world. Yeah. So again thank you for all of that. It really means a lot.

    Erin:  I couldn't agree more that this is such an important field. It's a way for understanding our relationships and our interactions and what better thing to learn? I think people would agree that we need to understand each other or at least try to understand each other a little bit better. 

    Maybe we can transition now to in 2018, you are also a part of the boundary spanning symposium that SESYNC held. Basically, a conference about talking across disciplinary boundaries. So if you want to just maybe give us a little bit of a taste of what you got out of the symposium, what you learned, and maybe if there's any continuing collaborations today.

    Lori: Absolutely. I loved that meeting and it really came at a transformative point in my own career. The symposium brought together several hundred people from across many different disciplines. And I understand there were more than two dozen or about two dozen different countries that were represented there. So it was a highly international audience, but then also people from across the US and the US territories were there. And so as is, I think, Margaret Palmer's hallmark, that not only has she been extraordinary leading SESYNC in terms of bringing different disciplines together, but just diverse voices and people and perspectives. And that was so front and center at that symposium. There were several keynote lectures, but then there were also a number of thematic panels. And I was on one of the thematic panels related to disruptions, bringing in the disasters piece. 

    And so there were thematic panels, there were breakout sessions, there were moments where we were in little round tables and we've really got to connect. And so I almost think of it as a nested meeting that sometimes we go to conferences and it's a one-way, there are people up there who are sharing information. but this was a very dynamic meeting in terms of its organization and the content that was delivered, but also the potential for connections to be made. So it was extraordinary. And to your question about have there been longer term collaborations that have come out of that, absolutely. I have not only started following a lot of the work of the different people who I met there, and it really changed my orientation to thinking about a number of things. And the concrete example I'm going to pick up on was later that year, I actually received funding for a five- year National Science Foundation project that's focused on convergence in the hazards and disaster field. 

    [Erin: This project is known as CONVERGE and it is housed within the Natural Hazards Center that Lori directs. This facility is part of a much larger, national network of facilities known as the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure. You may notice in the name that it is heavy on the engineering side—think building codes and materials science—all useful things when it comes to planning for natural hazard disruptions. 

    But, what Lori realized was that quote, “when it comes to addressing natural hazard losses, the challenges we face are not simply technical—they are moral, ethical, political, and profoundly social.” Therefore, she created the nation's first social science-led component of this network—Converge.]  

    Lori: Convergence by definition is about disciplinary and organizational boundary spanning. So convergence is about interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary… 

    [Erin: In case you are not familiar with these terms, according to an article by Lori and her colleagues: Interdisciplinary is as you might imagine: It involves integrating information, data, methods, tools, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines focused on a complex question, problem, topic, or theme. Transdisciplinary, transcends interdisciplinary combinations of existing approaches to foster new world views or domains. It often involves stakeholders from academia, the public and private sectors, and/or non-profit organizations.] 

    Lori: … but it's more than that. It's also problem focused and solutions based. 

    And so I think being a part of that boundary spanning symposium and then going off to write the Converge Award those things were deeply interlinked. It just really got all engines firing. And I will say this too, that in the hazards and disaster field, we have a lot of mixing and merging across the social science and engineering space. And when I came into SESYNC, I was like, "Oh, SESYNC does a really great job with the social science and the natural science with the socio-ecological systems."

    And so oftentimes I would go, "Oh, the conversation SESYNC is having, it's very similar to some of the conversations we're having, but we often were maybe thinking about the built environment slightly more and SESYNC is thinking about natural environmental systems in slightly different ways, but there's, to use the word, a lot of convergence, what we're doing in the different areas. 

    And so again, it was just I loved the meeting, I learned so much from it. I developed new relationships, met new people, and ultimately expanded my own intellectual horizons and so much more than that though, because the work that I lead is about making connections. And so it helped me to expand those networks in some pretty profound ways, so I'm really grateful for it.

    Erin: Awesome. Thank you. Yeah, and as you mentioned, you are the director of the Natural Hazards Center. So if maybe you could just talk a little bit about what you all are working on over there. 

    Lori: Absolutely. And thank you for asking. The Natural Hazard Center is actually one of the nation's oldest social science led hazards and disaster research centers. And the Natural Hazard Center was established in 1976 here at CU Boulder. And so for nearly 50 years now, it has played this vital role in terms of linking research and practice and policy communities that are concerned with reducing harm and suffering from disasters. 

    [Erin: There mission statement is: We envision a just and equitable world where knowledge is applied to ensure that humans live in harmony with nature.”]

    Lori: And so at the end of the day, we have four core mission areas: We are about translating and sharing information, data, and knowledge. We are about building connections across the various communities of practice, that are again concerned with reducing disaster harm [Erin: These include: Researchers, nonprofit and private sector professionals, the media, policymakers, as well as federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials.] We're about advancing novel social science and interdisciplinary research in the hazards and disaster space. And we care a lot about training and mentoring and diverse next generation of hazards and disaster scholars and mitigation practitioners. 

    And so every single day, that is what we are all about at the Natural Hazard Center, bringing people together, bringing knowledge into action, advancing new research and helping to cultivate this diverse next generation of scholars and practitioners. 

    And I was a graduate student at the Natural Hazard Center, and so I have been in this orbit since 1999, and I didn't know it when I walked through the doors of the Natural Hazard Center in August of 1999, but as soon as I walked through those doors, that was it. I walked through those doors on that day and it was like, "This is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life." And I loved every single minute. It is hard work. It's sometimes devastating work to think about disaster every single day. My watch even just said, "I'm sorry." [Hold on, can we just pause for a second? Lori is so kind and compassionate that even her watch is kind and compassionate too? We need more Lori’s in the world. ] And really, it is hard work and it's devastating at times, but it's also coming into contact with people who are working so hard in communities at risk to help to reduce that risk. People who are giving their all to try to recover from these events in different and sustainable kinds of ways to learn from children, to learn from people on the front lines, to work with other people who've dedicated their lives to mitigating the harm and suffering from disasters. There's nothing else I can imagine doing. And so being at the Hazard Center has been a great greatest gift and honor of my professional life for sure.

    Erin: Oh wow. Awesome. Yeah, you can tell there's a lot of emotion and just dedication from the heart in the work that you do. So that's amazing. And I was listening to some of your other interviews, and I know in one of them you did a really great job of defining the difference between a natural hazard and a disaster. So if you wouldn't mind maybe doing that here for us, that would be great as well.

    Lori: I would love doing this. And this also ties into our first question set about what is a sociologist doing studying disasters, which is a question I have received more than once, and I'm sure many of the social scientists in SESYNC networks have heard those questions because there's still that, "Oh, aren't natural hazards the domain of engineers or atmospheric scientists?" And so forth. And so I would love to make the distinction. And so natural hazards, we oftentimes think about the actual climate related or the geophysical hazard. So we may be talking about an earthquake or a flooding event or a landslide or a tsunami, a tornado. And so there are these natural hazards out there that involve these physical processes that are undeniably part of our natural world. But why social and behavioral scientists have so long been interested in natural hazards is because of the disaster piece.

    And so we oftentimes talk about disasters as a collision between the natural hazard event, but then disasters occur when there is this collision or shock, when there's a vulnerable built environment and a vulnerable human environment, that's when there's the risk and the exposure unfold, and the natural hazard turns into a human disaster. And so decades ago in the 1970s, a group of social scientists actually wrote this paper arguing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. And so they were making the point way back then that there are of course, again, natural hazards out there in the world, but to understand why an earthquake becomes a disaster or why a hurricane becomes a disaster, you have to bring that social science lens.

    Because it's through understanding historical processes, social processes, economic inequalities, that's where we can understand what turns a natural hazard into a disaster. And so that's oftentimes that distinction we make. There's a deep interconnection between the natural hazards and the disasters. But, that's one way of thinking about why do the disasters, or even the attempt to mitigate the harm from disasters, why does that require that natural scientists, engineers, social scientists, why does it require that we come together? Because we need all of our perspectives to both characterize the nature of the problem, but also to figure out what we might do in response to the problem.

    Erin: Awesome. Yeah, and I think probably in the vernacular, we put those things together, as you said, a natural disaster, but then it almost puts the onus on nature itself, but to make that distinction, I think there's something to be said about the fact that it doesn't have to be a disaster. If we can think about all the things that we've learned and all the things that we know related to economics or policies or buildings, we can avoid or like you said, mitigate some of these real challenges and a lot of the pain and suffering that goes into "natural disasters," quote unquote.

    Lori: That was beautifully and perfectly said. And I think that's exactly it, that by taking the natural away from the disaster, it takes it out of God's hands or mother nature, all of these external forces that historically were blamed for the disaster, and instead saying that these disasters, many times they are by design. They're by policy design, they're by human action and human hand that lead to those disasters. And exactly as you just reframed, if we can think about it in that way, that also means we have a chance to do something about it and to stop that natural hazard from becoming a human disaster. So while of course it is true, there is no stopping. There are going to be earthquakes, there are going to be tornadoes and floods, but it really is in our hands whether they're going to turn into an emergency, a disaster, or a true catastrophe.

    And I think that's why in our field too, we really distinguish between those different levels because we see that the catastrophes causing the widespread loss of life, like what's unfolding in Turkey and Syria right now, that yes, that was a devastating series of earthquakes that unfolded there, but anyone who's paying attention can also see the human hands all over the human catastrophe that followed those earthquakes related to the corrupt building practices, all the news that's coming out right now as we're speaking.

    [Erin: In case you are not familiar with these events, here is a little background: On February 6th 2023 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake followed by thousands of aftershocks, struck Turkey and northern Syria. Over 50,000 people have died. Millions are homeless and 220 million tonnes of rubble needed be removed from this region. But, as the dust settled, questions began to arise. Did it have to be this bad? The Guardian reports that, “In March 2019, a month before local elections, the Turkish government instituted a nationwide building amnesty on illegal construction, despite domestic engineers and architects warning that it risked citizens’ safety.” It is estimated that around half of all buildings in Turkey were constructed illegally.]

    Lori: So I think, again, we can look at event after event after event and say, "Hmm, yes, there was a natural hazard, but any kind of social autopsy of the disaster that follows shows where our policy choices, our human actions exacerbated and turned that natural hazard into the disaster." So again, the positive spin on that is every single time when we learn from those events, how can we get better at turning that knowledge into action more quickly? Because right now, the risk is outrunning us and we really need quicker and more evidence informed action if we're going to reduce future harm and suffering from these major hazard events.

    Erin: Yeah, thank you. And maybe we can hone in on one example that I'm sure everyone in the US would be familiar with, which was Katrina. Because I know that you have co-authored and co-edited some books on the disaster related to Katrina. So maybe if you want to talk a little bit about what you wrote in your books.

    Lori: Absolutely. Thank you. And Katrina has been one of the most widely studied disasters in our national history, rightfully so, because it remains the most costly natural hazard event in modern US history and one of the most deadly of this century in the United States. And as you noted, after Katrina, I became involved in several long-term projects. And so one of them was with fellow sociologists, Alice Fothergill. We actually followed a cohort of children for nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina. We think it's the longest running ethnographic study of children after a disaster. And so we followed children who were directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina and traced their recovery trajectory. So that was Children of Katrina. Another project that I worked on is called Displaced, and that was an edited volume that brought together 12 feminist scholars across the United States who we had started studying Katrina survivors who either landed in our communities who were displaced to places like Colorado or Columbia, Missouri or Columbia, South Carolina.

    So it was a group of scholars who both studied displaced survivors, but also a group of New Orleanian scholars who were studying people who had returned after the disaster. And so that book really focused on both the displacement process, especially for low income women headed black families after Katrina, but it also focused on the multiple moves and the receiving communities [who] supported or did not support the resettlement of Katrina survivors. And then the third book, the one that most recently was published was the final one in this Katrina bookshelf series and that I co-authored with the esteemed sociologist Kai Erikson, and it is called The Continuing Storm. And in that it's really taking a longer range perspective of looking at: What have we learned from Katrina? What do we need to learn from Katrina? Especially in light of the fact that so many more disasters of this nature have continued to unfold in the nearly two decades since that storm made landfall.

    Erin: Oh my gosh.

    Lori: I know.

    Erin: I did AmeriCorps in New Orleans, so I was there for the 10-year anniversary. What do you think we've learned since Katrina and what do we still have to learn, to prevent some of these enormous disasters from happening?

    Lori: Absolutely. And thank you for your contributions to the city and the people of New Orleans through AmeriCorps and otherwise, I am sure. I think we learned so much from Katrina and one of the things I learned as I traveled to other at-risk places and disaster affected places across the United States and even around the world is just what a marker event Katrina was for other communities.

    I'll give a concrete example of that. In 2011, after the devastating series of earthquakes struck New Zealand, one of the things that I learned when I traveled to New Zealand was how much New Zealand has incredible disaster preparedness and response and recovery, incredible apparatus around this. And whether I was in Christ Church or in San Francisco or in New York City, what I would keep hearing time again was how much other places had looked to what happened in Katrina and what a wake-up call that was on so many fronts, a wake-up call in terms of as you watched as the US is oftentimes referred to as the wealthiest nation in the world.

    And you watched black citizens in particular on rooftops for days, for days, waving white t-shirts, trying to capture the attention of rescue efforts, as you watched black citizens in the water rescuing fellow citizens, that there was just no denying the reality of systemic racism, of economic inequality. And I think one of the big shifts that I saw happen after Katrina was: Before Katrina, there's this, “disasters aren't equal opportunity events and we need to plan for vulnerable populations.” And that would sometimes get traction and sometimes not.

    And sometimes people would look quizzically like, "What?" After Katrina, that was not part of the conversation. It was right there in front of people. And not that Katrina wasn't contested, that there wasn't contestation around the response and the recovery efforts and so forth. But I think the major shift that occurred after Hurricane Katrina, just one major shift of many, was this recognition of how much pre-existing inequalities shape disaster response and disaster recovery processes at the local state, federal level, and how much other communities sought to understand that, to learn from it, and hopefully to try to make some kind of movement in their communities so that they wouldn't have that same kind of harm and suffering unfold for the people of their cities or their communities or their states.

    And to give another concrete example of that, one of the things when COVID 19 started to unfold, and people were initially, "Oh, everybody's affected by the pandemic equally." And I was like, "Oh no, we're back to this? No." The disasters almost always not just reveal existing inequities, they also exacerbate them. And one of the things that happened very rapidly in the face of that narrative in COVID 19, people started saying, "No, no, no, no, no. We need race disaggregated data. We need gender disaggregated data. We need to understand what's happening." And again, we saw there were these differences in who lived in who died by race, by social class status, by occupational status in COVID 19. So again, to go back to your question about what did we learn from Katrina, I think for all of the harm and suffering and heartbreak of Katrina, I think one of the enduring lessons has been that we need to bring this lens to every disaster to ask who is suffering first and worst in this disaster? Who has been disproportionately affected?

    How has that then affected the recovery process and how it unfolds and so forth? And so I think that Katrina continues to give us a different lens and a lens that allows us to see and to think about and to talk about race and class and age and gender and other forms of inequality that mark disaster preparedness response and recovery. And I think that is an important and an enduring impact of Katrina. And that's a sociologist saying that to you, I'm sure other people from other disciplines would have incredible and important insights to share about what they see as the most  important lessons of Katrina. But I think from a social science vantage point, that is one of the important lessons of Katrina.

    Erin: And that reminded me of a part of your video as well, where you say, what causes homelessness? And you have the people watching your lecture write down some factors that they think might contribute. And what was interesting to me as I've gotten professional development, when I worked at a food bank and a social service organization, it was exactly the same as what you said, which is that in the US we tend to look at these individual attributes of a person or choices. And those have their role and can contribute, but from a sociologist's lens, say, there's a lot of other things that can really contribute to any one person's status in life, namely their social structure, history, political happenings. So maybe if you want to talk to us a little bit more about that, that would be great.

    Lori: That was such a great recap. And that's one of the things that oftentimes when I ask my students what do they take away from a sociology class, that is one of the lessons, which is that C. Wright Mills is a classic sociologist that we oftentimes cite that they're of course, personal troubles that befall people in their lives. But when we look across society and we start to see that there are patterns, that large numbers of people are suffering from homelessness or from unemployment or from various forms of job loss, housing loss, et cetera, that what the sociological lens ask us to do is to try to connect those so-called personal troubles to broader social and economic and political and historical forces.

    And so we're constantly trying to situate the life of the individual in the broader social context and we all oftentimes refer to this in sociology as the structure agency debate. That we realize every single one of us, we all have agency and we all have personal agency in our lives, we all make decisions. But those decisions that we make are indeed structured by the historical moment in which we are born and live out our lives, by the economic context of our families, of our communities, even of our nation state that we're born into. And so I think it's that dialectic between the personal and the social that really is the heart of sociology, and that we're constantly trying to get our students and our colleagues and our collaborators to think more deeply about. Yeah. Thank you.

    Erin: Yeah. Awesome. And speaking of nation state, I just wanted to mention, because I don't think that we brought it up yet, I don't know how we missed this, but that you were appointed to the National Institute of Building Sciences, and you were nominated by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate, and I believe that you are the first social scientist to be appointed to this board. So maybe if you could talk a little bit about that.

    Lori: Oh, thank you so much. And it has been an enormous honor to get to serve in this way. And I will say that there are four presidential appointees at present on the National Institute of Building Sciences or NIBS board, and we are explicitly there to, quote, "serve the public interest." And so every single meeting that I go to for the NIBS, I am sitting there thinking about how can I best serve the diverse interests of 320 million Americans? And I really think about that. I think about that in every single meeting that I am sitting in that room, and that is what I am there to do. And there are other people who have been elected or appointed to the NIBS board who represent other dimensions of the Building Sciences community. So the scientist side, the built environment in the industry and so forth. But the four of us who were presidential appointed, we are really there to try to help think about that and what does that mean to serve the public interest of hundreds of millions of people in the context of the built environment?

    It's a big question. And so constantly trying to think about things through that lens of what does this mean for public safety? What does this mean for an incredibly diverse public? What does this mean for the health and wellbeing of our communities and so forth? So that's the lens I bring, and I'm very proud to indeed be the first social scientist on the board. They did confirm that that is true, although right now the current president of NIBS is actually a political scientist. And so we're making inroads with a social science perspective. And yeah, it's just been an incredible experience. And NIBS, I'll just say one of the other connections that I have to that work is they actually helped to lead these big mitigation save studies, and they were the first to assign a number, the mitigation saves 1.0 report assigned the now famous for every $1 dollar we invest in natural hazards mitigation, we actually saved $4 dollars.

    And then they updated that study nearly two decades later, and the new number was one to seven or one to 11. And so it showed like, "Oh, we save even more." And so it's just that, again, wrapping back to what we were talking about earlier in our conversation, that no, we can't stop the earthquake or the tornado or the hurricane, but if we do invest on the front end, we actually can make it less bad for people. And so that's what also drew me to really wanting to serve NIBS, was also just that focus and that leadership around there are actions we can take to reduce that harm and suffering from disasters on the front end in our built environment and through engaging diverse people and perspectives to do the best work that we can.

    Erin: You are representing the people, you're representing us because we need it. And I know you have specifically focused in your work on socially vulnerable populations as well as children. So if you want to maybe talk about some of that work.

    Lori: Absolutely. And I think that's that merger of the sociological perspective. When I started graduate school, my advisor, he happened to be the chair of sociology and he was the director of the Natural Hazard Center. His name was Dennis Mileti and I walked into his office on that August day in 1999, and he sat me down because I'd applied for and I'd been hired to be the research assistant at the Natural Hazard Center, but I hadn't actually applied to graduate school to study disasters at all. So I sat down with him and he said, "What do you want to do in sociology?" And I said, "Well," I'm 24 years old and I said, "Oh, I want to study," like every sociologist, "I want to study race, class and gender and age and social stratification."

    And he said, "Good, all of those things matter in an disaster. And if we like you and you like us, we'll pay for your graduate school. And the only deal is you have to write a dissertation that has something to do with disasters," or he said something like that, but it was like this moment. And he said to me, "You are a sociologist first. You're here to get training as a sociologist, but you're going to bring that sociological lens into the disaster space." And so on that day in August of '99, it was like, "Oh, okay." But very quickly it became apparent what he meant was, again, disasters like other sites in our social world, they are stratified. And so we've done research, for example, that shows that we know that in the United States that boys and men are more likely to die in natural hazards event than our girls or women across all age cohorts.

    We also know that there are racialized patterns to that men of color and elderly men of color are especially at risk to death in natural hazard events in the US. And so again, there's that sociological lens, that focus on social stratification that from the beginning it really hooked me. I saw the intersection, I saw the power and the importance of bringing that sociological lens. And that, as you said, Erin, it's informed my work for more than 20 years now. It's what I'm most passionate about, it's what I care about. I love learning from people who are living at risk and also learning from people about their disaster experiences and interviewing children and young people has taught me so much and has inspired me deeply about ways that we can be more creative and thoughtful in reducing risk and harm.

    And the children who I met after Hurricane Katrina, after the Joplin Tornado, after Super Storm Sandy, and after many other disasters, there is rarely a day that goes by that I don't hear their voices in my head and think about the things that they have taught me about the importance of doing this work and carrying their message forward. So yeah, that's what I love doing. That's who I love learning from. 

    And I love uplifting the voice of children because children make up 25% of our population in the US and decisions are being made every single day that affect their education, that affect the types of communities that they live in. But children are rarely, if ever consulted. They're rarely, if ever, in the room when decisions are being made that fundamentally affect their lives, whether it's concerning climate change or whether it's concerning school safety or any other name your issue.

    And so I think given that they are a quarter of our population, given that some children, especially the youngest children, are completely dependent on adults for safety and protection, I think we hold a special responsibility to children, current and future generations. And so that work really, really drives me and motivates me. And I hope that we will have more and more people who are doing work on children in the socio-environmental space moving into the future because they have a lot of lessons to teach us. They also have a lot of fears and concerns about the environmental futures that they are staring down right now. And so I think we also have a special moral responsibility to really listen to those fears and concerns, but also to listen to their creative ideas about what we might do in the face of those concerns.

    Erin: Yeah, absolutely. If you just look at, say, Greta Thunberg, now such a well known environmental activist, but, that's the kind of thought that we need to move forward. We can't just hand wave and say, "Oh, it's never going to change." In order to make these big changes, we need the voice of younger people and the people that are being affected, like you said. 

    And while you were talking, it reminded me, in your video, you also say, "sociology is everything."

    And I love that because I was like, "Ah, she is living her best life." I think anyone who thinks that their field is everything and sees everything through that lens, they're doing work that's really important to them. 

    And because of that, it's going to have a really big impact, like your work has had. I'm going to put words into Anthony Fauci's mouth, but I could imagine that he would see everything through the lens of diseases and things like that and be like, "This is it. This is the most important thing." And for you, that's disasters and children's welfare and vulnerable populations and sociology at its core. 

    So we're going to wrap up here, but I think that that's also a big important point of just our talk together is do what makes you happy. Do what your passion is. At least that's a big takeaway that I've learned in addition to the fact that sociology in particular and social sciences in general are just absolutely essential to environmental issues. 

    So with that being said, thank you for all the work that you do. This has been a great conversation, and I appreciate you. 

    Lori: Erin, I thank you so much. And you're just reminding me that there is so much work to be done in the world, and it's like, "Find out what is your work to be done and then go do that thing." And so just thank you for the honor of being your guest and just you're so graceful and thoughtful, and I just really want to thank you for the conversation today. It was truly a delight.

    Erin: Thanks for listening and I hope you will join us next time, for our last episode with our very own Alaina Gallagher, who is the Assistant Director of Communications at SESYNC about Science Communication. 

Lori Peek, University of Colorado-Boulder