Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘Communities shouldn’t have to rely on miracles’: A conversation with Samantha Montano

We sat down with the disaster researcher to discuss her forthcoming book, Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis.

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. To say so would imply that disasters are inevitable, when really, it’s human actions—or inaction—that turn natural hazards such as hurricanes and wildfires into disasters. In her forthcoming book, Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis, Samantha Montano takes us through the years she spent coordinating volunteers in post-Katrina Louisiana and through her time researching disasters across the country. Montano, currently an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, examines the many pitfalls of our current disaster management system up-close and lays out our vulnerability in the face of ever-increasing risk from climate change. Disasterology will be out on August 3, and is available for pre-order.

Southerly’s Gulf Coast Correspondent Carly Berlin sat down with Montano to talk about hazard mitigation as climate action, the fatigue of compounding crises, and how the media can better cover disasters. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Carly Berlin: You start the book by describing how you came to understand the ways that the environmental movement and the climate crisis and disasters are all intertwined. You write that “advocating for hazard mitigation and preparedness are just as much part of the climate movement as protesting oil pipelines,” which feels to me like one of the theses. How did your work responding to disasters firsthand, and then later researching them, bring you to that conclusion? 

Samantha Montano: When I went to New Orleans after Katrina, I was not thinking about [it] in the context of climate change. I still viewed climate change as being a purely environmental thing, affecting animals and glaciers, and not at all connecting that to tangible, disaster-related consequences. Those two things were completely separate in my mind. Even when I was in New Orleans and we were doing environmental or sustainability work, it was still all contextualized as “we’re putting solar panels on this roof because it’ll bring down the homeowner’s electric bill,” not, well, this is also good for the environment. 

And then BP happened. I started working along the coast. That was the disaster that kind of blurred things. That was the first time that I was more directly paying attention to oil companies and starting to understand the ecosystem around misinformation campaigns, and how these things were all intertwined. It all of a sudden became really, really obvious where we were headed. It changed, too, thinking about the recovery of New Orleans. This wasn’t just a one-time flood. Even if you don’t have a levee break in that exact same way again, the city of New Orleans is going to flood again, as we have seen, obviously, to various extents. Climate is a huge piece of that. You can’t talk about rebuilding a community from any disaster, you can’t talk about what the future of any community looks like, without factoring in climate. 

CB: Throughout the book, you tease out the differences between emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes. What sets those different types of events apart? What’s different about responding to each of them?

SM: I used those words interchangeably, as most people do. When I went to grad school, all of a sudden I had this framework that helped to explain why some disasters or hazard events played out differently. Emergencies are kind of on the lower end of the scale. They are a large scale traffic accident, or an apartment complex burning down, or something like the Boston Marathon bombing. There’s still a pretty wide range of incidents that can fit in this category, but from the management perspective, which is my perspective, that’s kind of what’s important here. Managing an emergency is done using local resources, using people who have trained together, who have planned together, who work together on a daily basis and know each other. They have the resources largely on hand that they need to be able to respond. In the U.S. we respond to emergencies pretty well, all things considered. 

Then as you go into these bigger incidents, you have disasters, which are middle of the road: your Joplin tornadoes, your Superstorm Sandys. Again, kind of a wide variety of what can fall within this category. But that’s when you’re needing help to come in from the outside; the community is overwhelmed, you don’t have the resources that you need. 

Catastrophes are the most important distinction. Our plans and our policies are written around the difference between emergencies and disasters. But when you get to catastrophes, you’re talking about Katrina, Maria, the Haiti earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami. Those are events where so many people are affected. The local community is cut off. It’s not that they’re not doing anything, it’s just that they’re completely overwhelmed. Local leadership is overwhelmed; they can’t lead their community through that event in the way that they can—or theoretically can—during a disaster and emergency. So you really need help coming from the outside, even international help. But importantly, you need that leadership coming in from the outside, which I think is probably one of the most important distinctions between the two. Often people from the outside fail to recognize that what is happening is catastrophic. That’s what happened during Katrina and Maria, and to an extent COVID as well, although that’s a more complicated situation. When you don’t have that leadership coming in, when no one is stepping up to fill that role, you have this vacuum, and the entire response just falls apart.

CB: You write that, “while a catastrophic event immediately overwhelms the system, a series of emergencies and disasters can have a similar effect.” That resonated for me, reflecting on covering Southwest Louisiana for the past year, which has experienced four federally declared disasters on top of the pandemic. What kinds of challenges do places like that face when they’re constantly whiplashed between response and recovery?

SM: Part of what is important to understand is that even though a winter storm and a hurricane and a pandemic seem like these very separate, distinct events that require really distinct responses, it’s largely the same people using the same resources, and the same people largely being affected. Whether it’s a hurricane or a cold wave or a pandemic, that actual hazard itself is less important when you’re thinking about the actual capacity to respond. It really is the number of times this is happening and the extent of the impacts and what those needs are. 

[In Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas], resources are running low, patience is running low. I mean, our entire recovery system—putting aside response—is based on this idea that people are going to be able to recover on their own largely with very little help from insurance or government. When you just start putting one disaster after another, who can do that? Nobody can do that. So it has kind of that same effect, right? Each time a new disaster comes you have less and less resources. You get stuck in this cycle. There aren’t policies in place to help people really get out of that cycle, outside of maybe moving. That is where we’re at. 

CB: We’re speaking now during the middle of disaster season, with the drought and wildfires ongoing in the West, anticipating hurricanes to hit the Gulf and Atlantic coast at any time. In the book, you pose the question: with the added pressure of climate change, how many emergencies will become disasters? How many disasters will become catastrophes? How do emergency management agencies need to be thinking about all of these changing risks?

SM: Yeah. That’s the big question. [Laughs]. I mean, first of all, I think it’s important to understand that there are some pretty significant differences in emergency management agencies in different communities across the country. But to overly generalize here: At the most basic level, we need to be updating hazard assessments, updating plans with the expectation of more, or changing, hazards in your community, whatever that looks like. To be accounting for this idea that you’re going to have multiple floods in the span of four years—it’s not just going to be a once every 20 year thing. 

I think the most important thing is building the capacity of emergency management agencies. In most of the country, [counties have] a part-time emergency manager. We even have volunteer emergency managers, which is just unfathomable to me. They don’t have the resources to do what many of them know needs to be done. They don’t have the right expertise in those agencies. If you’re only one person, no one person can do all of the things that we want emergency managers to do for mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. It’s too much. You need multiple people. 

They need more money, they need more authority and power to actually do things. They can create mitigation plans all they want, but if their mayor or local city council isn’t going to do anything to implement that plan, then they’re kind of out of luck. I do also think bringing them more directly into the climate side of things and roping the work that emergency management agencies are doing specifically related to hazard mitigation in with climate adaptation efforts. In a fair number of places across the country these are two very separate things, and they are so closely related. We need some crossover. 

Samantha Montano in Maine. (Photo by Carly Berlin)

CB: I think you have a passage in the book that’s something like, exactly the moment that we need to be building the capacity is when it’s going to be clear we don’t have the resources to do it.

SM: Right. If you look at a community that has gone through a couple of disasters, you have people start moving away, you start losing your tax income, you are spending all of this money on recovery itself. That is the last moment that you have time to start building out an emergency management agency, or you do it and it’s only temporary to get through the recovery. And then you add in all of these other factors, like town budgets from the pandemic. Maybe some of this pandemic money that is floating around will land in emergency management agencies, but I’m not going to count on that. It’s scary, too. Because when you look at how some public health agencies are being jolted around right now, in kind of a, “well, you didn’t respond to the pandemic well, so why are we giving you money?” Well, there’s always the fear of that happening with emergency management agencies—that has happened historically. 

You know, emergency managers say this a lot, that they’re kind of the scapegoats in a lot of this. In many ways they are. But it’s hard, too, because I think emergency managers historically have tried to at least have the perception of not really being political and trying to stay out of all of that. Which is, of course, in retrospect, not going to work in the long run. Everything emergency management does is inherently political. So it’s kind of a tumultuous time to be working in these agencies. It could go two ways. It could all fall apart. Or everybody could rise to the occasion, people could understand what emergency management agencies are, what they could be, and can fund them and hire the right people and listen to what they say. It’s just kind of a wait and see.

CB: I’m curious if you can expound a little more on what you mean about them being political. In the book, you talk about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) being a political pawn, but I’m wondering about the local level, too. 

SM: Many emergency managers understand climate change, and are seeing the effects in their community and know this means that their jobs are becoming harder. They’re literally on the front lines. But if you are in a conservative community, where climate change isn’t a term that can be used, what do you do as an emergency manager? Is that going to be the thing that you fight over with your mayor—and lose that goodwill—so that when a flood does happen, they’re less likely to listen to you? Or do you say: “well, fine, we’re not going to put the words climate change in our plan, we’re going to just quietly work on this on the side. But we know we need more money, and we’re not going to be able to get that because the cost benefit analyses are going to be off because we’re not explicitly including climate change here.”

When you are the one person, literally the one person in your community, who has some kind of ability to try and prepare for the next flood, maybe the right decision to make is to just say, “You know what, we’re not gonna say it, because it’s gonna cause a whole thing.” There are also decisions being made about how you are using your limited resources. If you’re wanting to do something to prepare your community, are you going to put all of your very limited resources into running an individual and household preparedness campaign where you’re trying to get people to go out and buy kits? Or are you going to try to work on some broader systemic issues that are leading to that lack of preparedness? 

CB: You write about how when you started grad school, you were shocked by the amount of disaster research that was out there, and how little of that actually makes it into practice. What are some of those gaps?

SM: A major example we always use are the myths of human behavior and disaster. Again, those date back to disaster sociologists in the 1950s. No, people don’t panic during disasters, they act rationally based on the information that they have. We can count on them to participate in the response. There is not this rampant looting. Even when you talk to some emergency managers, you can see them make decisions based on thinking that there’s going to be rampant looting, or make decisions based on thinking people will panic. Sometimes those are life and death decisions. That cannot be happening. It shouldn’t be happening. There’s no excuse for it. We’ve known for 70 years. Clearly something’s going amiss here. There’s a long list of reasons, I think, of why that research hasn’t made its way out more. But there’s clearly a gap.

CB: I want to pivot a little bit to talk about the role the media plays before, during, and after disasters, which is something that you touch on a lot. In the section on Hurricane Maria, you write, “The media is one of the most important participants in the emergency management. Survivors depend on it for information about the disaster itself — if they need to evacuate, how to stay safe, where to find shelter or food, to tell their story, and to communicate to the outside world what is happening and what they need. Those outside the disaster depend on media to tell us what is happening, if our family and friends are safe, and how we can help. Furthermore, the media is supposed to hold emergency management accountable. When help doesn’t arrive and government officials fail to respond effectively, it is the responsibility of media to illuminate their failures. Accurate, appropriate, and timely disaster coverage literally saves lives.” 

SM: Not to put that all on you. No pressure. [Laughs].  

CB: [Laughs]. What are some of the common failures that you see around reporting on disasters? And what can we do better?

SM: Usually, when a disaster happens, from what I’ve come to understand, they kind of just send whoever is available to go report on it. It is very often not somebody who is on a disaster beat or even on a climate beat. So they’re getting thrown into a disaster without any kind of base knowledge of what questions need to be asked, or who they need to be talking to.

[Often when journalists call me], we have to do an emergency management 101. I’m literally like, “you need to get a pen. I’m going to talk quick.” It’s frustrating because that is not a great way to approach disaster journalism. That shouldn’t be how this happens. It isn’t fair to the journalist who’s trying to do it. It’s mostly not fair to the people who are experiencing the disaster. It’s not fair to the experts they’re trying to interview. We end up getting frustrated. And then, of course, it gets handed off to somebody—maybe handed off to somebody—who’s going to cover the recovery. Mostly local coverage of recovery. And then as you have local media being shut down, and a lack of resources, there’s even less recovery coverage. And the whole thing kind of falls apart, right? Where you really need that accountability in the long term is in recovery. 

It’s not even just reporting on whether or not people have been able to get FEMA funds and whether or not they’ve rebuilt or where to find resources. It’s also watching what FEMA is spending money on. There’s almost no reporting on the contracts FEMA does…the breakdown in how grant dollars are being spent. It leads to a lot of superficial and inaccurate disaster coverage. Congress also is not providing oversight [of FEMA] here. Nobody is. 

When I learned who the stakeholders are in emergency management when a disaster happens, the media was not on that list. I added that later in my career. But, I mean, it affects everything right? It affects whether people evacuate, what risks people know about. People aren’t learning if they live on a fault line because an emergency manager put some pamphlets out at the grocery store. That’s not how people are learning about risk. They’re learning about it when there is a viral story in the New Yorker about it. If there was a better relationship between emergency management and journalists before disasters even happen, I think we would be headed in a much better direction. 

CB: You also write about how one of the common story tropes that media falls into after a disaster is the “miracle” story. The examples you give are the old man who survived for days on his roof after a flood, or the child saved from the rubble after an earthquake. What do you think about when you see those stories?

SM: Honestly, I think they are a waste of space. There are already so few journalists who are given space to write about disasters. Every time I see it, I think, well, how many hours went into that? How much work went into tracking that story down, interviewing people, writing it, somebody editing it, putting it up, getting a headline, sharing it on social media, trying to get people to click on it? I know, I’m just cynical. I know everybody likes a nice, good, hopeful story. That’s fine. But when you’re not even getting the basics covered, it strikes me as feeding into the problem of how coverage unfolds. I don’t think it does much to help that community that’s just been through that disaster. Why was somebody on their roof? Why weren’t there warnings? They were up there for two days? Well, what were you doing? Why was nobody out there rescuing them? All of those questions that actually matter, that actually could lead to some kind of policy change or program change or something. None of those questions end up getting asked, because you are just focused on this miracle that has happened. Again, that’s a very cynical take. [Laughs]. When it’s happening [during] every disaster, it’s signaling that there is a huge problem. 

CB: To wrap up, what do you hope readers take away from the book that they can bring to their people, their communities? 

SM: I was trying really, really hard to write this book in a way that just about anybody can pick it up and read it. The thing about disasters is that everybody is involved with them in some capacity, whether you realize it or not. Whether it’s just you as an individual or because of your job in some way. We all have a little piece of this within our control. I hope that when people pick it up, they can see where they fit into this bigger picture, and that they can start the process of sorting out where they can try to affect some kind of change in this overall thing. 

If you are a journalist and you pick this up, I hope you all of a sudden are like, maybe I need to be doing more mitigation coverage or more recovery coverage, or I need to be talking to these different communities in a different way. If you’re an emergency manager, hopefully this gives you some leverage for trying to get more capacity in your office. If you are a researcher, hopefully it gives you some ideas about other ways to communicate your research. If you’re a survivor, I hope it helps provide a lot of context for what’s happening around you. If you’re a climate activist, I think this is a great intro for how this connects in with the climate activism you’re already doing. That’s the hope. 

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.