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CU Boulder expert: Disasters going to become more frequent, more intense

Lori Peek joins national conversation on disaster coping and recovery

Flood repair construction in Boulder Canyon on Dec. 4, 2019.
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With the ink barely dry on the latest report stating that the effects of climate change are worsening, the director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder was joined by two of her peers Wednesday for a web-based discussion of coping and recovering from natural disasters.

Lori Peek, director of the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center, poses for a portrait on Jan. 3, 2019.

“There is evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that disasters are going to become more frequent and more intense,” said CU Boulder’s Lori Peek, whose office earlier this year landed a $3 million National Science Foundation grant for research tied to natural disasters and resiliency

“We already are in this situation, and disasters already are more complex, more commonplace and more catastrophic,” Peek said. “I feel like our journalists are running out of adjectives to describe the number of record-breaking events that we are experiencing.”

Peek was talking directly to journalists Wednesday who were following the conference, hosted by SciLine.org, an independent and free service based at and supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and conceived as a resource for journalists and communicators focused on science.

Peek’s comments came fresh on the heels of Tuesday’s release by the World Meteorological Organization of its annual state of the global climate report, which concluded that the planet’s climate health is deteriorating, that the urgency for global response and mitigation is ever more urgent, and that according to Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the WMO, “The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in power production, industry and transportation.”

That would be a very hard sell in the backyard of another of Wednesday’s panelists, Shannon Van Zandt, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University, whose research focuses on the intersection of affordable housing with disaster impacts, resilience and recovery.

“The short answer is yes, we definitely expect disasters to increase in frequency and severity. I think even in Texas, where we are typically more skeptical of climate change — not me, but the state as a whole — we have seen those effects,” Van Zandt said.

“We’re going to have more of these severe rain events. They’re going to last longer,” she said.  “With hurricanes, we know they are coming and we have a few days to prepare. But with (Hurricane) Harvey, It did not stop. When it came onshore, it sat over Houston and it rained and rained and rained for days, with an unprecedented volume of rain. Whether that’s the new normal … I kind of think it is.”

Also on Wednesday’s panel was Sarah Lowe, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, whose specialty is the long-term mental health consequences of a range of potentially traumatic events.

She spoke to the disparity in how people’s mental health is impacted in the wake of a disaster — what she called the resilience trajectory — and how it can be influenced by age and socioeconomic and psychological circumstances. Roughly 5%  to 10% of disaster survivors, she said, have been shown to have a “trajectory of consistently higher symptoms,” ranging from acute stress disorder to post traumatic stress disorder to depression and anxiety disorders.

However, Lowe said, those statistics “assume people come into disasters all with good health and high levels of functioning, whereas we know there’s substantial variability. Participants who are in this chronic trajectory tend to be those who were suffering from mental health problems before. So, how you were doing before (disaster struck) really does matter.”

“We know that pre-disaster mental health problems are the most accurate predictors of post-disaster mental health problems,” Lowe said.

The aftereffects of a disaster do not always play out on the same timeline as the availability of recovery resources, panelists noted.

“Sometimes there’s a mismatch between when the response and recovery dollars come in … and when the needs emerge,” said Peek, who observed that some types of funding might expire after 18 months, while problems might persist several years. “These things might not always be aligned.”

Boulder County is still dealing with at least one daily reminder of the 2013 flood, in the form of a $31 million repair and improvement project to Colo. 119 in Boulder Canyon, which was damaged by that disaster. Motorists, area residents and Nederland business owners are dealing with a four-hour closure to the highway four days a week for blasting relating to the project, which is now slated to last through December 2020, although the blasting closures are now scheduled to end in February.

One upside for some people, Lowe noted, is there are many examples of disasters pushing vulnerable populations, after the fact, to community resources, new neighborhoods, employment or education opportunities of which they otherwise might not have been aware.

The panelists agreed that available data and studies argue for communities doing far more in terms of mitigation before disasters strike, be it a matter of greater awareness to the way the built environment will respond to flood, fire, and other crises, to improved social and health services to the more vulnerable members of society — the very young, the elderly and the poor.

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