Jan 312011
Authors: Andrew Carrera

When CSU sociology professor Lori Peek stepped off an airplane in Baton Rouge, La. and made her way to New Orleans in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina to conduct social science research, dead silence gripped her academic companions as the once-lush southern landscape appeared more devastated with each passing second.

“About 30 minutes out, there were more and more downed trees …” she said, searching for a way to describe the post-Katrina countryside. “We just don’t have the words to make sense of it.”

Research backgrounds of this type and an interest in socioeconomics gave birth to the CSU Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis­­, a new on-campus research, outreach and student training center whose mission it is to know how social inequality affects people’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.
Peek and fellow sociology professor Sammy Zahran founded CDRA in July 2010 looking to add to the fairly new studies of how the economics are affected by natural disasters. The group will send paperwork to CSU officials on Friday for official university recognition.

Fifteen years ago, Peek said, catastrophes were treated as equal-opportunity events where any investigation conducted on their subsequent aftermath assumed all people involved in its destruction were affected equally.

“That was the lens of how peopledid research,” she said.

But, Peek added, CDRA’s focus is on what was ignored by researchers in decades past.

“We know that the poorest people around the world live in the most marginal space. They get hit the hardest and have the hardest time recovering,” Peek said, adding that rising socioeconomic inequality around the world foreshadows the increasing relevance of CDRA’s research.

Peek recently led some of CDRA’s seven graduate and three undergraduate researchers to a western county in the United States –– a location she could not mention by name because of an ongoing lawsuit the municipality is facing –– to assess the local government’s gaps in disability preparedness.

“We literally read thousands of documents in the county’s plans,” Peek said. “We held focus groups with emergency management officials, and we were able to apply our social science research skills to this very real world problem.”

Peek says that the center’s student researchers, who she selects based on performance in relevant coursework, are integral parts to CDRA’s operations –– a policy she made out of appreciation of her own experiences as a researcher at the Natural Hazards Center at CU-Boulder.

“I probably would not be standing here today if I was not a research assistant as a graduate,” she said.

ASCSU Beat Reporter Andrew Carrera can be reached at news@collegian.com.

Organizations funding the Center for Disaster Research:

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Texas Department of Transportation
National Science Foundation
Public Entity Risk Institute
National Institute of Mental Health
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Federal Emergency Management Administration
Clean Energy Cluster –– Northern Colorado
Superclusters Clean Energy
School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU

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