Are Disasters Really Natural? Insights from a Disasterologist

By Robert G. Smith, President & Chief Investment Officer; Nicholas C. Erickson, Vice President, Portfolio Management; Dr. Samantha Montano, Assistant Professor of Emergency Management, Massachusetts Maritime Academy

Many questions are still unanswered following Winter Storm Uri, which left millions of Texans without power and water for days. Could this disaster have been prevented? Who is responsible? How will we prepare for the next climate-related event? In this episode, Sage interviews Dr. Samantha Montano, an expert in emergency management and author of the forthcoming book Disasterology: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis. Dr. Montano sheds light on the lessons learned from previous disasters, how such events can be escalated by changing climate risks, and how they can be mitigated through progressive planning.

Total time: 37:58

Bob Smith: Good day everyone and welcome to this chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to ESG, where we explore all things that may be environmental, social, and governance risks for investors. Today, we’re here with Jessica McHugh, head of our media operation, and Nick Erickson from our ESG investment team to speak with Dr. Samantha Montano, about our recent brush with climate change and Winter Storm Uri, which proved to be a fairly significant event in the lives of every Texan, and some would say a major disaster.


But before we get into our discussion today, let me tell you about Dr. Montano. Dr. Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Her educational background includes B.S. in psychology from Loyola University in New Orleans, a Master’s of Science and PhD in emergency management from North Dakota State University. Her research interests and educational experience cut across several areas of interest in emergency management, such as disaster preparedness, response, recovery, mitigation. She studies vulnerable populations and disasters, and the political and legal foundations of emergency management and disaster communication. So all things about disasters. She’s also the co-founder of the Center for Climate Adaptation Research, which is an organization that funds research to evaluate and recommend policy to manage the effects of climate change through research, education, and advocacy. Dr. Montano is also the founder and author of the wonderfully interesting blog and newsletter, which I subscribe to, and I suggest everybody do the same that’s listening, called Disaster-ology, where she shares her favorite disaster-related news articles, research, books, podcasts, and other things she thinks we should really know, that are related to emergency management. And then lastly, she is an author of a new book about disasters and climate change entitled “Disasterology: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis.” The book is going to be published, come this August, by HarperCollins. I have already bought mine, I suggest that you all do the same, because I think she has a lot of interesting things to tell us and lots of things that we can learn from her. So let’s start with our first question for Dr. Montano.


Tell us a little bit about how, why and how you became involved with the field of emergency management and how that led to the study of disasters and this field that you now called disasterology.

Dr. Samantha Montano: Yeah, so I lived in New Orleans post Katrina for several years. I was there working on disaster recovery through a variety of nonprofits in the city. So I was doing everything from, you know, physically rebuilding homes, to helping homeowners fill out insurance paperwork, to doing a lot of volunteer coordinating of other volunteers that were coming down to the city to help.


And so that was kind of my first foray into the world of disasters. While I was living in New Orleans, the BP oil disaster happened along the coast. And some of the environmental groups I was working with in the city kind of temporarily dropped everything there to go down to coastal Louisiana, to help with the response and recovery from the oil spill. I also around that time, had the opportunity to go to Joplin, Missouri, following their major tornado and do some recovery work there. And as I kind of started to go to these other places that had, you know, experienced relatively different disasters – New Orleans had with Katrina, you know, geographically very different places, culturally different places. I was noticing that there were actually a lot of commonalities in terms of how people were really struggling through those recoveries. You know, there was a persistent lack of resources, a lack of communication, a lack of coordination. And so I started to kind of realize that some of those problems with recovery that I had assumed were pretty unique to New Orleans were actually more systemic to the U.S. approach to disaster recovery. And so that realization kind of led me on a journey to graduate school, as I realized I needed kind of more of a formal education in emergency management and disasters more broadly, in order to really be able to think about solutions of, you know, how we might change things for the better.


Bob Smith: That’s wonderful. Yeah, to be attracted to that field of study is unique, I have to say. Most people tend to run away from disasters, and you go towards them. And I think right off the top that makes you, you know, rather unusual, and somewhat interesting, because, you know, this is an area that not a lot of people do want to spend time on. And as I said, most people tend to want to run away. And one of the things I find is that the term disaster gets used to describe almost any kind of a terrible event, you know, these days from crop failures to things like, Winter Storm Uri, that we just went through. And, you know, I was wondering if you can tell us what’s the difference between an emergency and disaster and a catastrophe from, from a scientific perspective, because I know, these things are different. And I was wondering if you could share with us how you see that and how we should think about those.


Dr. Montano: Yeah. So, you know, as you pointed out, we all kind of use the term disaster pretty generically to describe any bad thing that happens. But from a research perspective, and from a more scientific perspective, there are distinctions between different types of events. I like to say not every disaster is a disaster, some are actually emergencies, and some are kind of on the higher end of things and are catastrophes. So, disaster researchers dating back many decades developed what we call the hazard event classification, which I will spare you the theoretical details of, but essentially, what it is getting at is that there’s kind of a spectrum of events that can happen. You have emergencies on the lower end — that would be something like a large apartment fire, a mass shooting, something that is still a crisis that requires a response, but it is managed, kind of on a more local level, using more local resources. In the middle, you have a disaster; this would be the Joplin tornado, the BP oil disaster, Sandy. These are events that can really significant bring a community to a standstill, by definition, they require help coming in from the outside, it overwhelms that local community. But it is, you know, something that is kind of still ultimately at the end of the day, relatively manageable.


And then we have catastrophes on the high end. So in the U.S. context, that would be Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure, Hurricane Maria. These events that come with really significant death tolls that, to the point where local leadership is completely ineffectual. And you’re needing to bring in leadership from the outside resources are needing to come in not only from the federal level, but also potentially internationally. You know, they’re the kinds of events that stand apart and stand on their own.


And so, sometimes people might feel like we’re kind of mincing words here. But it’s actually really important from an emergency management perspective, because the way we manage an emergency at that local level is going to look very different than how we manage a catastrophe. The way we plan for that, the resources that we need, who is going to be involved in that, that is all different, kind of from one event to another. So it actually is a really important distinction.


Bob Smith: Sure, sure. That was very helpful, because I, as I say, and you stated as well, everybody uses that term, but I don’t know that they really put it in the right context or understand. And I think that things can certainly move from a disaster to a catastrophe, am I right?


Dr. Montano: Yeah, definitely. So, you know, if you have Hurricane Katrina for an example, the actual storm of Katrina itself as it comes through New Orleans caused damage obviously, caused significant damage along the coast of Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana. But for the city of New Orleans itself, relatively minimal damage. Of course it was later as the levees started to break and the city disappears, or 80% of the city disappears under water, that you start moving from disaster to that catastrophe category. As communications completely fail, the response falters. And so certainly, you know, disasters have that potential to kind of drop in category.


Bob Smith: Sure, sure. Well, you’re talking about Katrina, and, you know, reading about your background and listening to you about the experiences and the places that you’ve been, obviously you’ve seen disaster in all different sizes, shapes, and forms. But I think also you’ve had the chance to experience different forms of climate change. And I’m kind of wondering, what would you say is climate change’s role in creating disasters? And to what extent is this relationship, if there is one, preventable?


Dr. Montano: Yeah, so the kind of connection here between climate and disasters is that as the climate is changing, the hazards that can lead to disasters are changing. So, we’re seeing changes to hurricanes, we’re seeing changes to spring river flooding, we’re seeing changes to winter weather, to summer weather, to heatwaves, to cold waves. Sea level rise, of course, is, you know, leading to increased flooding. So, the hazards themselves that we’re experiencing related to climate change aren’t necessarily new, right? We’ve always had to deal with hurricanes, but the way those hazards behave, and the when and how and to what extent they impact us is changing. So climate change is one factor among many that leads to a disaster. Other factors like development, how and where we’re building, our interconnectedness of systems, right? There are all these other factors – social vulnerability, economic vulnerability – that are at play there. But climate change is certainly contributing to those changing hazards. In terms of where that leaves us with, how can we prevent this from happening? Or what can we do? Certainly, mitigating climate change itself is incredibly important. We also do need to contend with the reality that you’re already experiencing the consequences of climate change, still early days, but we are experiencing it. And even if we stopped drilling up oil tomorrow, we’re still locked into a certain amount of change. And so that means we need to adapt, we need to undertake efforts to protect ourselves in our communities from this increasing risk until we can get a better control over climate change as a whole.


Bob Smith: Yeah, no, I totally subscribe to that. I think that the idea of prevention is something that is an ingredient that is definitely recognized in the aftermath of situations, just like we faced here, the winter storm recently. And that means that maybe climate change in some way is natural, in the sense of the disaster, that it kind of triggers. But what you’re saying, it seems to me, is that natural disasters are truly not necessarily natural, or just acts of God. Right?


Dr. Montano: Right, exactly. You know, the factors I just listed, whether it’s climate change, or infrastructure maintenance, or in our interconnected systems, or development, those are natural decisions, right. Those are products of human decisions. So, no, disasters are not natural. That’s kind of a misnomer that we use. Dr. Dennis Miletti, who’s one of our famous disaster researchers, he used to say that disasters are by design, they’re created, they’re a choice; very often they are policy decisions that have been made. So again, this isn’t, you know, just kind of an issue of semantics. There’s real implications here, right? If human decisions are at the root of disasters happening, then that’s actually good news because that means we can change our decisions that we’re making and do more to minimize or prevent these events from happening.


Bob Smith: Yeah, ‘cause I think a lot of people look at these disasters, oh, it’s all, you know, environmentally charged and connected and then you turn around and say, no, it’s really governance, it’s really important here. And here’s why. Because if we had mitigated this and looked ahead, and perhaps put some policy in place to prevent this, this kind of enormous kind of event, and control it, perhaps we would have come out the other side better than we had.


Nick Erickson: In your experience, Dr. Montano, do you think that municipalities are adequately preparing for future climate risk as climate changes? Or are we continuing to look in the rearview mirror at what’s happened previously? Texas, we’re very familiar with droughts, and heat events, and floods. But we did not see the storm Uri coming in the slightest bit, because we have a backward-looking bias at this point. Do you see that municipalities are starting to look ahead at what these future climate risks could be when they’re preparing for these disasters?


Dr. Montano: So I think the kind of short answer here is no, generally municipalities aren’t doing enough to prepare for climate. What I’ll say from an emergency management perspective, is that one of the key responsibilities of emergency managers is to do risk assessments for their locality. That involves doing a hazard assessment that looks at the types of hazards their community may experience. It also involves a vulnerability assessment to assess how vulnerable they are to those various hazards and which parts of their community are most at risk. And in what we’ve seen is that traditionally, those hazard assessments in many places have kind of been built off of the historic disasters that have happened in that community. If you say, well 20 years ago we flooded, so we know flooding is a risk that we should plan for, the one problem with doing that is specifically related to climate change, which is, of course these hazards are changing. And so we really do need to be looking forward for those hazard assessments and incorporating climate change projections into those assessments. And that is something that some communities are doing or are trying to do. Some communities don’t really have the resources or the knowledge or technical expertise to really be able to do that. So there is some pretty serious kind of variation around the country in terms of that. But you know, to connect this back to what I said earlier about this distinction between emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes, one of the ways that we can try to minimize how severe an event is, is by doing preparedness efforts, doing more mitigation efforts in communities to minimize that risk. So a flood that may have been a disaster, if you’ve done a lot to mitigate that risk, may only be an emergency. And so that’s where you can kind of, if not prevent that disaster from happening altogether, you can at least minimize the kind of severity of it.


Nick Erickson: Okay. One of the databases that we use to evaluate our municipal credits from a climate perspective, we use the term climate resiliency, which is a combination of what we determined as a risk and readiness. We use a database of the Notre Dame GAIN Urban Adaptation Assessment, and the biggest factor in a municipality’s climate risk within that database is population density. One of the biggest factors in their climate readiness is their bond worthiness, which is essentially their fiscal health. So it sounds like it kind of lends to what you’re talking about, and how they plan their urban population, how their density builds up, and also how they’re able to maintain their financial flexibility to adapt to these future events. So my next question would be, what other factors do you think could play a part in either their overall risk or readiness for a municipality that they should be considering?


Dr. Montano: Yeah, so you know, these questions of kind of coming up with indexes for vulnerability, resilience, readiness, is something that disaster researchers have spent a lot of time working on. One issue that I think is important to kind of recognize off the top is just that there is very often a disagreement about what those terms actually mean. And kind of different people use the term resilience in different ways. So I think as a starting place, it’s really important to kind of define what you kind of mean by that term. From an emergency management perspective, when I’m thinking about resilience and thinking about factors that I would want to see at a local level that would indicate a level of resilience, I’m thinking about this in terms of how they’re doing emergency management. So there’s four phases in emergency management. We have hazard mitigation, those things you’re doing to prevent the disaster from happening; we have preparedness, the things you’re doing to ready yourself to respond to and recover from a disaster, if it happens; you have response, which is your actual responding to the disaster; and then you have the recovery afterwards, rebuilding a community putting everything back together. So when I’m thinking about kind of the resilience of a community and how they could prevent a shock, or a disaster from happening, and then also come back from that, if it does happen, I’m thinking about those four different phases. And I’m asking a little mental checklist of saying, has this community done mitigation? Are they basing their mitigation off of the hazards that they are actually most at risk from? Have they correctly identified those hazards and those risks?


When I’m thinking about preparedness and thinking, have they done response planning, but have they also started planning ahead for a recovery? Are they working on preparing the nonprofits in their communities, the businesses in their communities, individuals in their community, for a disaster, right? Not just what they’re doing to prepare government, but the, as FEMA calls it, the whole community? In response, you’re looking at kind of what response organizations there are, kind of the level of volunteerism and level of service in your community. We know volunteers, nonprofits are a hugely important piece of how effectively a response can go. When you get to recovery, again, you’re looking at has that community done anything ahead of time to plan for recovery? Do they have kind of the internal infrastructure set up to have a recovery committee that is going to oversee that recovery committee or oversee that recovery? Do they have enough people working in their emergency management agency to apply for those recovery grants? So there’s kind of an endless list of factors that you’re looking at. I don’t necessarily think there’s any like comprehensive list of factors, but certainly, there’s different kinds of indicators that you can look towards to see how seriously a community is taking their risk. And how you know what it is they’re doing to try and minimize that risk?


Bob Smith: Now, preparedness really is, as you say, how dependent are we on others to essentially pull us out of the pickle that we may find ourselves in is the question that has to be asked. One of the things we found here is there are actually two different types of Texas, there’s the rural Texas, where people do have fireplaces, and people have the ability to essentially find habitats that they can survive in if something like this occurs; and they have access to food and water in different ways. But if you find yourself in the urban Texas, which is again, when you look at San Antonio, and you look at Dallas, and Houston and Austin, those are four of the 10 largest cities in America that are largely cities. And so there is no such thing as a fireplace in lower-income housing, for instance. And so what happens when everything goes down for them, they can’t just go running out and find wood and pop it into the fireplace and grab a bunch of blankets. So here again, I think that there’s a disproportionate impact that comes from lack of preparedness. And do you see that happening in other communities as well?


Dr. Montano: Yeah, absolutely. So a kind of myth that we have about disasters is that they are these great equalizers and that everybody is affected equally by disasters. And, in reality, that is not the case at all. We see pretty consistently across various types of events, that there are disproportionate impacts. You know, people who are in low-income communities of color, women even tend to have experience more impacts than others. We also see that there are inequalities in how different groups of people are able to access help when a disaster happens. So, you know, obviously a group like undocumented immigrants are going to have a much more difficult time accessing government-based assistance. We also see the way recovery policies are written, the way grant programs are written within FEMA, and the federal government more broadly, they tend to favor communities that have a more robust emergency management agency that has the staff to be applying for those grants to bring more money into that community. So there’s all different kinds of kind of systemic inequalities built into our emergency management system that can even kind of further compounds those various impacts.


Bob Smith: Sure. Well, yeah. Even to take it a step further, the aftermath of this, certainly from a Texas perspective, is now we’re trying to assign blame, but who’s gonna pay for this? And how does it get paid for. And so the impact, the ripple effect of this in terms of low-income, disadvantaged communities, is going to be extraordinarily extended, because their bills are going up. And the cost of power to them is not going to get subsidized, certainly, under current situation, and so these things can be more long lasting for lower-income communities than for those that perhaps are a little bit higher up in terms of the economic ladder, so to speak.


Nick Erickson: What I found interesting about this Texas disaster, those we had seen in one of my previous iterations of careers that mobility and ability were the big driving factors. And typically, in Texas, at least in Texas, the ability to weather, let’s say, a hurricane, or a drought and the mobility to get out of the way of a hurricane or a drought are two huge factors. And to be able to withstand that type of climate risk. And the interesting thing about Uri was it paralyzed our ability to withstand the cold. And it absolutely paralyzed our ability, mobility to get out of the way of it because of the ice storms in nobody having any ability to travel. Where are you going to go? If you’re in Austin, you’re going to go to Houston? No. You’re going to go to Dallas? No, you can’t travel on the roads, because the roads are impassable. And you can’t heat your house, because your entire house is full of electronic appliances, from heaters to water heaters to ovens. And so, you mentioned a great equalizer. In this case, it actually was a great equalizer because it paralyzed the entire community’s ability to do anything about this.


Dr. Montano: Yeah, you know, that’s another good point, too, is that one of the defaults of how we think about disasters tends to be evacuate, especially in communities that experienced hurricanes, our default reaction to experiencing a hazard is kind of get out, get away from it. And that’s logical, to a large extent, too. But another thing that I think we need to think about for our larger cities, and also as it relates to hazards changing because of climate change, is that evacuation is not always an option. And I think sometimes communities tend to have an over reliance on you know, our solution to the problem is going to be to evacuate, when really staying home sheltering in place is very often, is not the better option, is kind of a necessary reaction based on the constraints of the situation, as you were explaining people not being able to go on to the roads, doing any kind of traditional evacuation isn’t possible in that kind of scenario. So one of the kind of things that I think some local communities need to do more of is expanding those shelter-in-place orders, thinking more about communication with individuals and households, when those kinds of situations come to fruition. But even for bigger events, like hurricanes, I mean, there are a lot of reasons the city of Houston was not evacuated during Harvey, as we saw during Rita, you know, a mass evacuation of a city like Houston does not necessarily go well.


Bob Smith: Well the other thing too, which I don’t want to forget about, that really was kind of the cherry on top, and as we talked about evacuation and sheltering in place and finding kind of support is this notion that we’re living in a pandemic. And so, you know the the risk of infection and being in very close in quarters, in public shelters and various other things, for many was just out of the question. Talk a little bit about the impact of the pandemic and in disaster management. You know, that was a whole different twist of this one as far as we were concerned.


Dr. Montano: Yeah, throw in a little bit of a wild card there. Yeah, from the moment a year ago that I think many of us had a fuller realization of how significant the pandemic was going to be in the United States, one of the biggest concerns among emergency management officials and experts was what does this mean for responding to the other disasters that we know will happen in the next year-plus? And one of the very first things that FEMA did last year was issue new guidelines for last year’s hurricane season that kind of gave instructions to local communities about how they needed to adapt sheltering plans, evacuation plans, kind of what the protocols were going to be in terms of, do you prioritize hurricane response? Do you prioritize Covid response? And that’s been applicable to tornadoes that have happened, other flood events, to Uri, certainly. And we’ve definitely seen that the pandemic has affected how emergency managers respond. The things that need to happen during a disaster response very often involves people being in close proximity to one another. So it certainly kind of made everything slightly more difficult at every turn. We unfortunately don’t have research yet to see exactly if there were spikes in communities that needed to do community sheltering. So we don’t have great data on that yet. But it certainly has affected everything operationally. And long term, too, as communities are going through the recovery process, from various other disasters to try to account for Covid restrictions, as you’re doing that, again, complicates everything.


Bob Smith: Sure. Sure. Well, I have one last question that I’d like to touch on before we bring this wonderful discussion to a close. And that is the role of communication. And it’s one of the things that was said about what we experienced down here is that they didn’t really tell us, I really didn’t have an appreciation for what was coming at us. I wasn’t really aware of where to go. Now, it seems to me that communication is a very pivotal role in disaster management and emergency management. Yeah, what can you tell us about things that we should be thinking about and what governments should be doing?

And in recognizing the importance of that?


Dr. Montano: Yeah, communication is absolutely huge in disasters. It’s something that emergency managers spend a significant amount of their time working on. But I think maybe the easiest answer here is that communicating with the public in the middle of a crisis can be really difficult. One, there can be you know, logistical barriers. If communication networks are down, where people aren’t getting messages, so you have to kind of contend with that. But you also have to contend with this issue of information changing very quickly. You have to contend with an issue of different communities, different people needing different pieces of information. And you have to deal with things like language barriers, you have to deal with issues like trust – who a message is coming from, what that message says, what those recommendations are all going to influence how different people react to those messages. The consistency of those messages, all of those different factors are playing into whether or not people take those warnings seriously. On top of that, just base level communication that has to happen, though, you also need to be giving recommendations to people that they actually have the ability to act on. If you are telling people that they need to stay home and they can’t leave their house for the next three days because the roads are icy, but they haven’t had the opportunity to go to the grocery store to get food for those three days, then there’s going to be a disconnect there. So you know, getting the timing the information. And getting those warnings and explanations to the public is a really complicated process. It’s something we have to do, and emergency management needs to be better at. And again, as we move forward into the future, and we see various risks increase, it only becomes more important.


Bob Smith: Sure. You know, down into here in Texas, I think about the only communication that we got for the storm that we just went through was “watch out.” Not much else.

Nick Erickson: So I was going to say, Dr. Montano, on your blog, you have a holiday gift recommendation guide. I was wondering if you’d be able to sit down with us and put together 2022 Christmas guide for Texans who were stuck in a cold storm? You know, at least from a main perspective, what do we need when temperatures hit six?

Dr. Montano: A generator.


Bob Smith: Exactly. Well, Dr. Samantha Montano, this has been wonderful. We appreciate your time, your insights. And I think we’ve learned a thing or two about disasters today. And I hope our listeners will become avid subscribers to your newsletter and your blog, Disasterology. And by all means, I encourage everybody to purchase a copy of her wonderful book that’s coming out this summer. And I think that there’s one thing for sure: that there will be more disasters to come. And I hope after our discussion today that we’re all going to think a little bit more about, am I ready? And who can I help and how can I get through this disaster that’s coming at us. So thank you again, and please stay tuned for our next edition, our next chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to ESG. Have a good day.

Originally published by Sage Advisory

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