Defining Disaster: basic framework for “socio-meteorological” research

By: Josh Eachus

As early as 1961, Charles Fritz expressed a need for people and pertinent practitioners to understand the anatomy of a disaster in order to fully grasp the human psychological and societal impacts they present. Many associate disaster with earth processes such as weather and climate. However, it is possible for earthquakes and hurricanes to occur without affecting people. If a tree falls…

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Then what constitutes disaster? For starters, it must be an event of negative or unfavorable outcome. From a scholarly perspective, disaster must be personal or societal and can be civil or natural. Within each type there exists a sub-type. In the example of natural disaster, flooding from a slow rise on the Mississippi River will cause much different pre and post disaster reaction than a flash flood. Though definitions still vary, Enrico Quarentelli simply offers that disaster is a disorganizing event. A basic disruption of one’s social context or homeostasis may constitute a disaster. This certainly could include weather or climate events but also a death in the family or loss of employment. As society we accept these as life events, but should be considered disasters no less thus constituting a means for reconstruction.

With a broad definition established, disaster next must be classified so that studies can be focused. People DO NOT view threats, respond to stress, or recover from loss in the same way.

Especially when a threat originates from an external source, such as nature, people DO NOT view threats differently. Some prepare while others take no action.

During disaster, (most) people DO NOT become frantic and helpless–contrary to what is popularly believed and sometimes depicted in media. Some, like the Cajun Navy, respond with power and offer assistance to those suffering from disruption.

After disaster, recovery is disproportionate. Economic status, race and gender have all been linked to the process. If you want to take the deep dive into this subject matter, have a look at the work done by Walter Peacock after Hurricane Andrew.


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The effects of disaster are not simply physical or structural. Mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, is a prominent area of study in the recovery phase of disaster. Considering the variables mentioned previously, scholarly work has found that the same disaster would cause much greater mental anguish in youths from poor economies affected by violence than adults from stronger economies.

In some cases, “heroes and villains” may emerge before, during and after disaster. People and victims may attribute blame to some and praise to others. In civil conflict, the two sides are clear. The line blurs with natural disasters. Consider Hurricane Katrina; FEMA, the local police, residents who shot looters, even weather forecasters—were these people heroes or villains? The answer may be in the eye of the beholder.

Amidst all of this we must also consider how societal interactions with the environment are creating disaster. People are now flocking to disaster prone areas like the coast—ever more perilous due to rising sea levels induced by global warming. Thus, having definitions and classifications of disaster, along with an understanding of the sociological influences, provides more information for policymakers responsible for the dispersal of aid. Speaking of money, are we even properly considering all disasters? What about extreme heat? Insurers are much more concerned with millions in property damage after a hurricane than a few hundred human deaths related to extreme temperatures.

Our thewxsocial.com community and many across the field can attest meteorology and the social sciences are becoming more and more integrated every day. Indeed, we seem to be in the “socio-meteorological” era. Brilliant research in this space will continue. However, the disaster literature highlights clear need for scholars to consider many niche areas. For instance, just last month, Matt Bolton examined weather messaging considerations for those with autism.

Data mongers, research meteorologists often aim for a broad look at disaster. Statisticians will have us believe that one-thousand entries offer more insight than one-hundred. Contrarily though, it seems that narrowing focus may tell much more about those most adversely affected by disaster. For example, the field is currently fishing for more information about evacuation decisions of coastal residents before a hurricane. Including people up and down the East Coast would offer a large amount of data and useful insights. However, the wide-net cast by those geographical bounds might also catch many evacuees that had the proper means and mindset to make the desired decision to leave. On the other hand, dropping a smaller line and examining full-time elderly residents of North Carolina’s Outer Banks would provide far less, but perhaps more satiating data about those who likely need more assistance in getting and acting on a message. What groups are most vulnerable to high impact weather? Who aren’t we reaching and why? How can we identify these individuals first, and then bridge that gap?

Our field has the right mindset, and is poised to continue the big improvements to weather communication. But this transition to what I call the “socio-meteorological” era suggests that to achieve big, maybe we need to aim a little smaller.   

What do you think? How can research efforts continue to support the integration of weather and social sciences?


References:

Fritz, C. E. (1961). Disaster. Contemporary Social Problems: An Introduction to the Sociology of Deviant Behavior and Social Disorganization.

Norris, F. H., Byrne, C. M., Diaz, E., Friedman, M. J., Watson, P. J., & Kaniasty, K. (2002). 60,000 disaster victims speak: Part I. an empirical review of the empirical literature, 1981-2001 – ProQuest, 65(3), 1981–2001.

Quarantelli, E. L. (1986). What should we study? Questions and suggestions for researchers about the concept of disasters. ISA Research Committee on Disasters, (August).

Tierney, K. J. (2007). From the Margins to the Mainstream? Disaster Research at the Crossroads. Annual Review of Sociology, 33(1), 503–525.

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