Disasterologist Samantha Montano
This year, we’ve seen the devastation of climate impacts across the country that come against the backdrop of a global pandemic. It’s been one disaster after another — from unprecedented wildfires ravaging the West to an exceedingly above average hurricane season in the East Coast, we’re living the realities of a warmer world. While there is an urgent need to mitigate the climate crisis and the impacts that accompany it, we also need to be thinking about how we plan for and recover from these climate-fueled disasters.
Samantha Montano is what you call a “Disasterologist.” She has a doctorate in emergency planning and is currently a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Dr. Montano is heavily invested in researching and working on achieving equitable policy around how we plan, prepare, and recover from disasters. For this episode, we sat down with her for a conversation around the climate crisis, the lessons that can be learned from the coronavirus pandemic response, and how our systems are woefully underprepared for the impacts of climate change.
Below is a transcript of the podcast, edited and trimmed for clarity and brevity.
Maria Virginia Olano (MVO): Samantha, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. How have you been through this quarantine?
Samantha Montano, PhD (SM): I’m hanging in there! It has been quite the experience, how about you?
MVO: Likewise. You’re in Massachusetts as well, right?
SM: I teach in Massachusetts, but I’m in Maine right now.
MVO: Got it. I think it’s similar, things are looking a little bit better in the region now, so that’s been a relief, but still working from home so it’s been a long time. What about in the fall? Are you planning to be teaching or teaching remotely, what does your plan look like?
SM: Last I heard we will be teaching on campus for at least some of my classes, so I’ll be back down in Massachusetts come September.
MVO: I’ve been seeing a lot of plans coming out of universities and some are super comprehensive, with massive testing and precautions, so hopefully that will be able to go well.
SM: Fingers crossed.
MVO: This is very topical for you and what you do, so hopefully we get to talk about the craziness that has been this last few months with the pandemic and how that informs some of your thinking and your work. First off, do you want to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background and how you came to do the work that you’re doing?
SM: I got my start in disaster work in New Orleans following Katrina and the levee failure in 2005. I grew up in Maine, so I was quite far removed from Katrina, but my high school did a volunteer trip down to the city to help gut and rebuild houses. I went along and got to New Orleans and was completely horrified by the extent of the devastation and how much need there was in the city, so I decided to move to New Orleans to help with the recovery more long-term.
I lived in the city for about four years, and worked with all kinds of recovery nonprofits doing all kinds of things throughout the city. While I was there, the bp oil disaster happened down along the coast. I had been working with a few different environmental nonprofits in New Orleans and we extended our work down to the Louisiana coast to communities like Grand Isle, who were starting to experience the initial impacts from the oil disaster. I ended up going from one community to another that was experiencing some kind of disaster or another — I spent some time in Joplin, Missouri after their tornado. As I went from place to place, I started to notice that, even though the types of disasters that had happened were really different and the communities themselves were really different, the problems that were arising, particularly in recovery, were remarkably similar to one another. Every community had problems with getting enough resources to help people. Every community was struggling with communication and coordination among different nonprofits that had come into town to help with recovery.
I started putting together these pieces of what I was learning at these different disasters and trying to look at the bigger picture that was going on around the country when it came to disasters. Through a series of events, I ended up going to graduate school where I got my doctorate in emergency management and started to learn all about disasters research, our emergency management system, and just sorting through all the challenges that communities face before, during, and after disasters.
MVO: In an earlier season of the podcast, we actually had Professor Daniel Eldridge who also incidentally got his start into disaster recovery and research with Katrina, he was living there at the time. It’s quite the start to a career with one of the most horrifying disasters in recent American history.
How do you think that initial experience for you, and the shock that it was seeing the aftermath of such devastation, informed you as you’ve gone on in your career in disasters?
SM: I think it’s informed everything. Like you said, Katrina, which actually wasn’t a disaster it was a catastrophe, was categorically bigger and more complex than what we think of a normal, traditional disaster like a tornado. Everything that goes wrong during and after a disaster was amplified. You couldn’t be in New Orleans without seeing the ways in which race, class, gender, a long history of politics, and corruption, all of these different factors were swirling around with another to create the lived reality on the ground. I think that having a start with such a complex and extreme version of disasters laid the groundwork for everything else.
MVO: I can only imagine. It painted a picture of the massive scope of what disaster and disaster recovery means, especially because ten to fifteen years after Katrina there was still recovery happening. What does it mean to communities to rebuild not just in the literal sense of rebuilding, but actually rebuilding community and being able to go back to place and build some of those social bonds that were present.
You also host a website and everyone should check it out. You call yourself a “Disasterologist,” which is a fascinating term to me. What does that word mean to you, why pick that term?
SM: Disasterology is a term that has been referenced, actually going back many decades, among disaster research in some obscure literature. I didn’t come up with it myself, but I helped to resurface it. Essentially, it’s somebody who studies disasters. My degree is in emergency management, but there are people in all other disciplines — sociology, history, economics, any discipline you can think of — that are studying disasters and doing disaster work, and all of our work informs on another. There is this broader umbrella of disaster researchers who are doing this work, so disasterology helps capture that collective effort and also is helpful in communicating what I do to the public. I do a lot of science communication, public engagement, outreach work, and when I say I’m an emergency management scholar not a lot of people know what that means, but disasterologist is a bit more clear.
MVO: That makes sense. Something that comes up often for me and in the work that we do is the terminology and what different terms mean. For instance, when we talk about the climate crisis versus the climate emergency versus a specific disaster or natural catastrophe. How are all those terms different but related, and specifically in the work you do when it comes to emergency management in the moment when the emergency happens versus the longer term scope or view of ongoing disasters or impending crises?
SM: That’s a great question. One important thing to note is that, particularly among people doing climate work and people doing disaster work, we’re very often talking about similar things and are just using different terms. The example I tend to use is climate adaptation and hazard mitigation. In emergency management, we refer to hazard mitigation as sustained efforts to prevent and minimize risk in a community. Building a levee, doing home buy-outs, putting in greenspace, building codes for earthquakes, all those efforts that we do and have done for a really long time to minimize the risk of disaster falls under this mitigation category. There is significant overlap with what folks are talking about in the climate adaptation space — they’re not completely the same, but there is a lot of overlap. When climate folks talk about managed retreat, we’re talking about buy-out programs, which is what we’ve been doing for a long time. We’re just using different words, which complicates matters and I think is really confusing.
It might help for me to clarify what emergency management is. Traditionally, folks probably think about FEMA or the actual response to disasters as being what emergency managers do. In reality, FEMA is a very small part of emergency management and actually managing the response to a disaster is a very small part of what emergency managers do. We encompass everything from the response all the way through the recovery, for however many years or decades that takes, but then also everything that comes before disasters. Everything we’re doing to prepare for response and recovery, and also hazard mitigation, the things that we’re doing to prevent disasters from happening in the first place. It’s a pretty far reaching discipline and profession.
MVO: Absolutely, and we’ve actually had another certified emergency manager in the last season of the podcast, Dr. Atyia Martin. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her, but she’s done phenomenal work here in Boston and a lot throughout her career.
Maybe we can talk about the work of disaster planning, through the disaster and recovery afterwards, and how have you been thinking about this through the coronavirus pandemic? We are still living through it, it’s been many, many months since the start of this in early January. It’s now become a disaster that has spanned every country in the world, impacted everyone’s lives in one way or another, and has shown a lot of these horrifying disparities that often are exacerbated during times of disaster — whether that be racial or socioeconomic. How have you thought through this moment on how organizations and governments have responded to the pandemic?
In season three of CoolerEarth, we sat down with Dr. Atyia Martin, founder of consulting firm All Aces Inc. and Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Boston. Dr. Martin is a certified emergency manager with over 15 years of experience in the fields of public health, emergency management, intelligence and homeland security. Listen to the episode.
SM: It’s a lot to wrap your head around. I’ve approached it thinking about it through an emergency management framework. One thing to point out that is quite different about the pandemic compared to the types of disasters that most people in the U.S. are familiar with is that the response itself — the actual life-saving measures that are being taken to address the pandemic — are occurring over the span of many, many months. Hopefully we’ve reached the middle, who knows, of the response, and we’re used to those responses lasting a few days or weeks at most. Trying to wrap our heads around the actual length of the response, what that means, and how that changes how we usually respond to different disasters.
The other thing from an emergency management standpoint is thinking through the capacity of the emergency management system to be involved in this response. This is the first time in U.S. history that every single emergency management agency has been activated simultaneously for the same event. The way that our system is structured is that we’re really reliant on help coming in from neighboring states or other parts of the country when disasters happen. When there’s a hurricane in Florida, the rest of the southeast U.S. goes into Florida to help them. That hasn’t necessarily been able to happen with the pandemic because every community is juggling their own needs. It has really caused this strain within the emergency management system.
MVO: And perhaps it’s because it has been such a widespread, diffused kind of disaster that is affecting everyone. In what ways do you think that experience, and the way in which the systems have been strained, can inform the way in which we respond to disasters in the future?
SM: I’m so glad you asked that. I’m actually co-leading a really great team of disaster researchers from across the country and we’re asking exactly this question. We’re specifically studying the capacity of the emergency management system and how it’s responded to the pandemic, and then looking at those factors and what that means for the future, particularly in the context of the climate crisis and increasing disasters across the country. As we go into the future and the likelihood of having multiple disasters happening simultaneously across the country increases, we want to figure out what exactly needs to change within the emergency management system so that it’s better able to meet those needs.
MVO: That’s fascinating work. I very much look forward to seeing the completion of that because I think this has been a huge test on our ability to cope with massive strains and disasters that we know are going to become more frequent and worse into the future. That brings me to something else I want to touch on with you, which are issues of race and justice and how we’ve seen that through this crisis right now. Have you seen your field of work and study increasingly recognize those inequities within systems and societies as something that is also related to emergency management, and needs to be incorporated within the frameworks that we think about when we think about emergency response?
SM: I think it has been an increasing focus. Within disaster research, analyzing the role of race and class and other demographics factors has been a focus for a while. It’s definitely increasing now. In practice, though, things are a bit different. Traditionally, emergency management agencies have been mostly older, white males, with a military and first response background. I think having that demographic so dominant in the profession has really helped to obscure some of the injustices that occur before, during, and after disasters.
As the pandemic has unfolded, as you said, we’ve seen that come to the forefront again in who’s most impacted in terms of not being able to take time off from work, who is able to access government aid, who is able to get healthcare coverage and access. Because, again, of how it’s affected every community across the country simultaneously, hopefully there is more of a recognition among a broader subset of the profession of the importance of understanding how race and class are affecting the work they’re doing. What I can say is that there have been more conversations about the role of race and class in disasters, and hopefully that begins to manifest more in policy changes and in practice.
MVO: Inclusion as well, and what you say about the makeup of the people who are doing this work is so important. Just like across so many other fields of work that we see not be so inclusive as the people and communities they represent, and that shift needing to happen internally to be able to reflect the needs of the communities we serve is a huge component to this as well.
I also wanted to ask you about mental health. I know you have a background in psychology, which I believe is your undergraduate degree, which is really fascinating to me that you have that background. How do you think that background in psychology has informed the way you think and approach your work now? Specifically as we think about personal and community mental health and mental health impacts through times of disaster and increasing anxiety around current disasters and disasters that are to come.
SM: Mental health is so important in the broader disaster work that we do. When I started in New Orleans, my first internship that I had related to disasters was working at the VA in New Orleans, and specifically working with veterans who had PTSD and had been struggling because of and since Katrina. Right from the beginning of doing disaster work, I had a first hand experience with how the trauma of disaster can manifest. But also, we tend to think about that trauma coming from the actual experience of going through the disaster itself, but research shows that significant impacts happen during the recovery from disasters. As people are having to figure out how to rebuild their entire lives, they’ve lost their jobs, their homes, they are removed from their communities and social networks, separated from family. We see the stress and strain of going through recovery leading to increases in stress, we tend to see an increase in suicides post-disaster, and unfortunately that happens at the same time that communities very often find their mental health systems have been impacted by disasters.
Going back to New Orleans being this extreme example of this. In the years following Katrina, the mental health system in New Orleans essentially collapsed. People were having to travel outside the city to get inpatient care. Folks who were experiencing some of the worst mental health impacts didn’t have insurance to be able to see a therapist and get the help they needed. You saw this ballooning mental health crisis throughout the city of New Orleans as the recovery dragged on and on. We’ve seen a similar situation happen in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. The pandemic too has many of those signifiers of what we would be excited to see in the aftermath of a disaster — people losing their jobs, not having economic stability, not having access to mental healthcare in some cases. It’s a super important component of disaster work that we need to get better at addressing.
MVO: It’s kind of jarring to think about what that might look like for a situation like we’re living through right now. The amount of lives lost and the massive economic toll that this has taken, and just foreseeing what it will take to recover the human costs and human impact that it will take to recover from this year. One of the things that is always interesting for me to think through when talking to people doing disaster relief is this dichotomy between those of us doing climate work, trying to prevent things from getting so dire and horrific, and squaring that away with the fact that, at this point, there are a certain level of disasters that are inevitable. And we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that so much more frequently over the past few years, with increased hurricanes and flooding — even Boston two years ago, I don’t know if you remember the massive winter flooding and storms that happened.
How do you think through this concept of having to still work really hard on mitigating the causes of disaster, while at the same time understanding that there is a certain level of preparedness that we’re going to have to do to reduce the suffering and risk when those disasters do happen?
SM: We’ve got to address climate change itself. We need all hands on deck to do that. To your point of thinking in the long-term, that is something that’s going to help prevent future disasters from happening. But at the same time, there are already communities across the country and around the world that, as we speak, are experiencing the consequences of climate change. We need to address their needs now as well, and I think that’s where emergency management has a real responsibility here. We are the frontlines system that exists to address these impacts that communities are already experiencing, and our emergency management system is far from perfect. It’s a strange system. The approach it takes is not always effective, it’s not always a just approach. In the same way that we need to be thinking ahead to minimizing future disasters, we also need to be thinking about the changes to the emergency management system and our approach to disasters, so that we are helping communities where we aren’t preventing those disasters from happening.
There’s been some back and forth about this throughout the pandemic of this ‘do we need to pause working on climate change to focus on the pandemic’ or ‘no, we can’t stop talking about climate change whenever there’s a disaster.’ It’s one of those things where it’s not either or, you have to do both and there are people who are better suited to do that work than others. It’s a better use of my time to focus on changes to the emergency management system and to help draw out those connections between disasters occurring now and climate change. Rather than having me go spend a lot of time dealing with carbon emissions, leave that for other people. It’s about recognizing the different areas that need to be involved in the conversation, making sure that everyone has a seat at the table, and that our work is connecting so that folks aren’t getting left behind.
MVO: It’s super interesting that you mention that because that’s something we also talk a lot about in this podcast too — how detrimental is it to think about these issues as a hierarchy of priorities and so when something comes up, everything else needs to be on pause or take a backseat while we focus on the current issues. When in reality, if we’re talking about systemic change, none of those things are irrelevant and none of those priorities can take the backseat because we need to take a holistic approach and understand our own lanes within these massive changes that need to occur.
Another thing that you mentioned is the changes that need to occur to the emergency management response as we see them now. I wanted to talk to you about this idea of volunteerism and charity, and the ways in which we often fall back on volunteers or charitable giving in times of disaster. While I think it’s a brilliant and amazing thing to see people come together and show up for their communities members in times of disaster, I’ve read about how you speak on the issues that this causes for the systems at large and the responsibility that actually lies within funding and proper management of these systems. Can you talk us about how you think through where this responsibility lies, and why it can be an issue that a lot of these responsibilities fall on civilians that want to come together and help when a disaster strikes?
SM: The way that our emergency management system is structured is that it takes a limited government intervention approach. What that means is that the government provides some help in the aftermath of disasters. You get some money from FEMA if your house is destroyed, the average for a Joplin size event, Hurricane Sandy, you’re looking at an average of five to six thousand dollars per family. It’s really not that much money going to individuals specifically. What that means is that people are on their own. Some people may have flood insurance, which is great, maybe they’ll have the money they need to rebuild, but maybe they don’t have food insurance as many people across the country don’t, or maybe the money being paid out isn’t enough to actually rebuild. Most people do not have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands sitting in a bank account waiting to be used to rebuild a house. It very often leaves individuals in this position of not having enough of their own resources, not getting enough from the government to recover, and having nowhere else to turn but to nonprofits. Because this model that we’re using is a limited intervention approach, it actually is the way the system is designed. The expectation is that the nonprofit sector will fill the gap between what individuals can afford on their own and what the government is providing.
As we’ve had disaster after disaster across the country, we’re seeing that the nonprofit sector, specifically the disaster organizations, are struggling to actually meet the needs in communities across the country. My dissertation research was on flooding in Texas in 2016, and I interviewed a lot of volunteers, a lot of executive directors and volunteer coordinators for national disaster nonprofits. I heard a lot about volunteer fatigue and how organizations were having to try and make decisions about which communities they were going to go and help with. Sometimes there would be a disaster that happened somewhere in the country and they didnt feel like they had the donations, volunteers, or organizational capacity to go and participate in the response and recovery from that disaster. That is really concerning if you’re taking this national birds-eye view of the U.S. emergency management system. We’re not just talking about FEMA and local management agencies, we’re also talking about the nonprofit sector, and our disaster nonprofits specifically. If they’re saying we don’t have the resources to help everyone, that is a huge sign that we have a capacity problem and that something needs to change somewhere. This is something that I’ve been learning about and talking about since 2016, but in the past couple of months this has ballooned into an even bigger challenge as we think about the pandemic.
We have seen millions of people lose their jobs and have cuts to their income, so people’s personal ability to cover not only their daily expenses, but any other disaster that comes up is incredibly limited right now. We’ve seen that Congress has not done much to help at the individual level again in terms of responding to the needs of the pandemic itself, but we would see that amplified again with what happens during this time. We’ve seen that some of our disaster nonprofits are helping out with the pandemic, but because of the need to socially distance, volunteering is difficult right now so they’re struggling. One of the biggest red flags right now is that the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters — they’re a coalition of our national disaster nonprofits, about 60 different organizations — the president of that organization said that they believe they will have 50% less volunteers because of the pandemic.
Something else about our disaster volunteers is that folks tend to work with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, tend to people who have extra time to go to communities and help. That means a lot of folks who are retired, so a lot of the volunteers are actually in that high risk category for COVID. The capacity of the system has taken another hit in that way and potentially losing that expertise that exists within those organizations. There is a perfect storm of factors coming together right now to suggest that this capacity is really stretched thin.
MVO: Another thing that you’ve written about and that I’ve come across is this idea of “volunteer fatigue” as well, and how people, individuals, and the public at large also get fatigued with how much disasters seem to be. You watch the news and we went from the horrible wildfires in Australia to the pandemic to now the hurricane season. This seems to be almost a cyclical issue in which people who don’t work in the space or don’t have the necessary training get overwhelmed and fatigued by the level of devastation that is happening across the board. Can you talk about that in terms of how it affects public perception and how that in turn can be a challenge for emergency management and systems?
SM: Fatigue can manifest in a number of different ways. During really active hurricane seasons where we have one hurricane after another, there are always concerns about whether or not people are tuning out various hurricane warnings because they’ve already been through several weeks of it. There can be real consequences in terms of whether or not people are paying attention and are able to take actions to protect themselves. Another way that it manifests is in actual donations. As I just talked about, we’re really dependent on those nonprofits, and those nonprofits are very dependent on financial donations from individuals across the country. People are limited in their ability to give when there is one disaster after another, so that can help compound the ability for these organizations to be involved as there are more and more disasters.
I’ll also mention that there’s a fatigue around disaster survivors as well. I mentioned being in Texas earlier, and the flooding in Houston and surrounding areas in southeast Texas. They have had one flood after another since the memorial day flood in 2015. There are people there who have had their houses flooded five, six times in the past five years, and certainly they are not only stuck in this cycle, but they are exhausted by the continual flooding. Then of course you have the fatigue among emergency managers and other responders to disasters. I will tell you just from talking to emergency managers working across the country right now, this pandemic has been exhausting. Everybody has been working nonstop, there has been no real break, and to think that we’re still just starting the height of hurricane season, there is already significant fatigue.
MVO: Do you see any opportunities? Do you see any good news or trends you’re starting to see in how we can overcome some of these massive challenges?
SM: I will say that in recent years, but especially in recent months, there is much more of an interest among the public for learning about and understanding disasters. I think people are looking for clear, no nonsense, science-based explanations about what is happening. This is a really scary time we’re all living through right now. Even before the pandemic started there were these non stop disasters straining the system, affecting millions of people around the country. I think that, for one of the first times, folks across the country really started to see what the climate crisis means. It’s not just this future reality, it’s a current reality. There is almost a craving for explanations for what is happening. My hope is that those explanations and that analysis will lead to an interest in interrogating what is causing these disasters, who’s most affected, and what we need to do to prevent them.
I mentioned earlier that we need significant policy changes, at local levels but also nationally, to make our emergency management system more effective. That’s not something congress is going to go and do on their own. We need people who are advocating for those policy changes, and it has gotta be something the public understands and is pushing for. I’m hopeful that, as people are seeing these disasters over and over, there is an almost opposite reaction to fatigue and that there is more of an interest and a rallying around trying to make changes for the future.
MVO: That’s why science communication has such an important role to play right now, in terms of making science and facts accessible to people who want to understand and getting more involved. The work you’re doing in terms of that communication of science is so important, and I see this trend of more and more people getting engaged and making those more accessible for a larger number of people who care about the issues that we’re living through.
So that’s hopeful! I always try to incorporate some kind of hopefulness because we tackle a lot of jarring prospects and very horrific realities, so I think it’s important to provide a scope for what is happening and what people are actually doing to address those huge challenges.
One thing I have to ask you, and I imagine this is something that you get asked about a lot doing the disastrologist work that you do, but what are some of the things that you are most worried about, and how have you prepared or incorporated some of those certain things into the way you live in order to personally prepare yourself for disaster?
SM: I don’t really know if there is one specific disaster scenario that really keeps me up at night. My biggest concern always goes back to this capacity issue and it’s really having multiple, major disasters happen at the same time. We’re pretty far into my worst nightmare with this pandemic and hurricane season right now. Even going back to the 2017 hurricane season, where you have 3 in a row plus the California wildfires. Any scenarios in which you have multiple events and resources have to be divided across the country gets into scary territory for me. In terms of what I do to prepare myself, I’m pretty cautious about where I live. I would never purchase a house that is next to the ocean, and I try to make more strategic decisions so that I’m not in a position of going through a disaster myself.
MVO: That’s absolutely great advice. I’ve become the person who’s always looking at flood maps. Especially in Boston when you have these projections of 2050, 2075, and 2100 of the massive amount of area that is going to be flooded in deciding where we should live, so that’s kind of an interesting way to have to think about things.
In closing, I wanted to ask you what are some of the projects that you are looking forward to? I know you’re working on a book, I believe it’s published next year, and if you want to tell us about the projects you’re excited about right now?
SM: Research wise, I’m working on the COVID research project. I also recently started a monthly disaster newsletter, which I’m pretty excited about. I just sent the first one out this week. People seem really excited about it. I tried to have it be as informative as possible, but still try to keep it light and be aware of the fact that we’re living through a pandemic and don’t want more disaster news on top of that. You mentioned my book which I have written, it’ll be coming out next summer. It’s essentially the story of how I became a disasterologist. I go through different stories of the communities I’ve spent time in and how that shaped my understanding of disasters, emergency management, and climate change. I talk a lot about being in New Orleans, being in Louisiana during bp. I talk about Houston and their flooding, I talk about growing up on the coast of Maine, and also living in North Dakota during Standing Rock. I go through what the emergency management system is, the fundamentals of disaster research, and the way it’s written is very much for a general audience. I’m hoping it connects especially with folks in the climate movement and environmental movement more broadly. Like we were talking about earlier, it could be helpful to folks who have had disasters on their periphery but are looking for more specific insights about what exactly emergency management is and how that fits into the climate movement and climate adaptation.
MVO: That is so exciting, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes out for that book because as you said it’s so relevant and so important and something that people need to be paying more attention to.