Samantha Montano: Being a Disasterologist
Disasterology: Samantha’s website
Samantha on Twitter
Her “Five Myths on Floods” piece for the Washington Post
Her ABC News interview on climate change and natural disasters
Her blog post “Death & Disaster: Warhol at the Whitney“
BOB (intro): This is Science+Story. I’m Bob Lalasz. On today’s show: The Disasterologist. Samantha Montano is a scholar of disaster science and emergency management, and she wonders why in a world that seems like one continual disaster, anybody would criticize her for trying to make the world a little smarter about disasters.
SAMANTHA (quote from interview): I’m not comfortable being one of those very few people with this overarching knowledge and just sitting back and watching everything burn. I’m going to do—and again, this might come from my background in activism—but I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that decision makers, survivors, that they have the information that they need to be able to make the right decisions for themselves and their communities…and that’s that.
BOB: Coming up, Samantha Montano on why she calls herself a “disasterologist,” what sucks about how the media covered disasters, and why she hid her age and gender when she first started out on Twitter. It’s pretty gutsy and risky for an academic just starting her career to pick a cool label for what she does, and then just start calling herself that. But that’s what Samantha did with “disasterologist.” I asked her first, why do that?
SAMANTHA: Yeah, so I came up—I believe- to my memory it was the first year of my master’s degree at [North Dakota State University]. And I had started—you know, when you go out into the community you meet people and they say, “Hey, what do you do?” And I said, you known, “I’m in grad school. I study emergency management.” And they were, like, “What is that?” They—truly just no understanding of what emergency management is, which is understandable. I was doing disaster work for a while in New Orleans…
SAMANTHA: …before I even knew that term and knew what that meant. And so really I was kind of trying to workshop different ways of saying what I do so that people understand it without me having to explain it. And kind of in that process this idea of disasterology kind of came up. I wish I could remember the, like, exact moment really where I thought of it, but I can’t. In retrospect, I went back to do some research, because I was, like, well, this is a cool word. Like, has anybody said this before? And so I went back and did some research and surprisingly few people have actually used the term historically. There were a couple disaster researchers that had noted it in something they were writing. So I did not completely come up with the term on my own. There were one or two maybe across the world that I’m aware of, current disaster researchers who were actively using the term, that I kind of, again, found in…
SAMANTHA: …retrospect. But I like to think that I helped kind of resurface it at the very least. Now when you look through Twitter there’s a bunch of other people who have “disasterologist” in their Twitter bios, which always makes me happy to see.
BOB: So how do you use the term “disasterology?” What does it mean to you?
SAMANTHA: Yeah, so for me, I use the term “disasterology” in my public-facing work. So anytime I’m talking to an audience that isn’t disaster researchers really is when I’m using that term. And I’m using that to encompass anyone who is studying disasters, whether that is a historian who’s studying the history of disasters, or an economist who’s studying how the economy is affected by disasters, sociologists, psychologists, right, from all of these various disciplines that are interested in disasters. So that’s kind of how I use it as this catch-all term. And again, I’m really using this term because it’s something that somebody can look at and kind of get a sense…
SAMANTHA: …of what I need right away, much more so than “emergency management researcher.” So that’s how I use it. There’s, like, a separate conversation to be had about is emergency management itself a discipline? Is it an emerging discipline? Is there a broader discipline of disaster science? Those are all, like, much more involved conversations that we do have in our field, but that are kind of more among researchers rather than with the public.
BOB: I thought the term was really cool because the very idea of it fills a need that when you hear it you realize we have the need to look at disasters in a systematic and evidence-based way and to learn from them. There’s a body of research and evidence out there, and we need to be drawing on it, right?
SAMANTHA: Yeah, that’s exactly it. We have been studying disasters for the past 100 years, and almost nobody knows it. Part of that stems from us being in these various disciplines and there not being…
SAMANTHA: …kind of that unifying, public-facing component of our field. And so that I think is the real value in using that term as being that face for the public to even alert them that disasters are something that we study, and something that we can study, and that has implications for how we manage those disasters. You know, all of that has been hidden historically kind of behind the scenes. And I think now, especially today as we’re seeing this increase of devastating disasters across the country and across the world it’s really important that the public understand that we even exist, and that we have really important findings from researchers around the world from the decades and decades that we can use to help the way that we respond to these types of events.
BOB: Okay, so what are some of the popular myths about disasters that evidence tells us aren’t true?
SAMANTHA: I think kind of the, like, overarching myth that we have in emergency…
SAMANTHA: …management and disasters more broadly is that disasters are, like, this unavoidable accident that happens, right? And in fact we know from research—we know the factors that lead to disaster. We know how policy decisions that we make, how we build, where we live, how all of those factors are actually what leads to a disaster happening, right? A hurricane by itself out in the ocean, not bothering anybody, is not a disaster, right? It’s only when that hurricane interacts with us in some negative way, and overwhelms us, and requires this response from us that it becomes a disaster. And so I think there’s this really dangerous mindset—and, you know, historically this has been true as well—of thinking of disasters as some act of God or as some natural event that is occurring, and it kind of undermines our ability and the—undermines our ability to mitigate the—and do things to prevent those disasters…
SAMANTHA: …from the beginning, right? There’s so much that we can do to prevent disasters from happening, to make them less severe when they do happen. But if we have this mindset of, “Oh, it’s just this thing happening to us; we’re not really involved,” it undermines our ability to do that. So I think that’s kind of the overarching myth, and I think that’s where something like disasterology and having that public-facing piece of disaster science is so important, right, is—to even look at disasters as a science, as something that can be studied, is something that I think is pretty new for the public overall.
BOB: When do communities start listening to research on disasters? Does it ever happen before the disaster, or is it always after everything has gone to hell?
SAMANTHA: Yeah, I think you can see it in certain communities. Unfortunately it usually happens after a disaster has already happened. So you kind of—it’s difficult to get away from that reactivity piece all together. But in the process of recovering…
SAMANTHA: …sometimes we’ll see that communities are able to garner the support, garner the resources to rebuild differently than how they had originally built to try and prevent those disasters from happening in the first place. And I think that in some communities researches, again from various disciplines, have been involved in that in various ways. I think it’s primarily happened in some, like, pretty small-scale and, like, localized situations. I don’t necessarily know of kind of a large national-scale way that we’ve been successful in this.
BOB: Let’s say a disaster is coming; there’s a hurricane on the way and it’s about to hit the U.S. Are you as a researcher reaching out to media for opportunities? Are you pitching yourself furiously as the disasterologist?
SAMANTHA: I would say that of the articles I’ve written I’ve maybe pitched 25% of them, maybe. The other 75%…
SAMANTHA: …I’ve been approached from an editor to write. I think that’s probably pretty unusual [LAUGHTER] for academics who are doing freelance writing. I’m not totally sure, but I think it is a little bit unusual. So in that sense, yeah, my name is out there at this point. Outside of actually pitching an article I don’t ever really reach out to journalists about anything specifically. At most I’ll comment on something they’ve posted on Twitter and say, “This is wrong, here’s why.” But past that, no, they’re reaching out to me at this point.
BOB: What was the tipping point for you? What was the piece that got producers and editors calling you more than you were pitching them?
SAMANTHA: Well, I’ll tell you, it was the very first article I ever wrote [LAUGHTER]. It was during the Baton Rouge flooding of 2016, there was a massive flood across Louisiana and there was essentially no national media coverage it. It had been the largest disaster since Superstorm Sandy, and just completely ignored. The front page of…
SAMANTHA: …CNN had, like, a giant squid on it. And we were all watching this unfold, like, what are you doing? What is happening? And I was just tweeting about it and kind of lamenting the lack of national news coverage, and I had, like, tagged a few news outlets in it. And kind of long story short I ended up on the phone with an editor at Vox, and she said, “Oh, you’re right, we haven’t written about the flood. Our person who usually writes about disasters is, like, out sick this week,” or “at a conference this week,” or something, “and we don’t have anybody to do it. Can you do it? And I had never before—I was still in grad school at that point. I had never, ever thought about writing for Vox or for a popular outlet; that thought had never even crossed my mind. No one I knew in my field was doing that. And so it wasn’t even something that was on my radar. And I was kind of, like, “I mean, I think that’s kind of your job, but sure I can do it I guess [LAUGHTER].” And so I wrote this article.
SAMANTHA: I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. She was, like, “Just pretend it’s a blog post and write it.” And I was, like, “Well, okay.” And so I wrote it pretty quickly because of the time constraint, and sent it to her, and she made a few edits, and it was up by the end of the day kind of thing. And again, I had never even thought about doing that. In that sense this, like, public-facing work that I do was, like, pretty accidental. I think I probably would’ve ended up there anyway, but yeah, that really kicked it off. And then after that something—I don’t know if people know this about freelancing—but kind of once you have one of those major outlets under your belt then you kind of use that to build off of it. And so I don’t know the next article that I did, but, you know, the next time—or the first time really that I pitched someone I said, “You know, I wrote this article for Vox; here’s what I want to write for you,” and kind of went about that process. So that’s how it started by chance, yelling at journalists on Twitter.
BOB: A lot of researchers find it really hard to write for non-specialists and media outlets. You…
BOB: …on the other hand seem to pick it up really quickly. How much did blogging help you become a better writer for the public?
SAMANTHA: Yeah, I think so. So I started the, like, original version of that blog my very first year at grad school. So I had gone straight out of undergrad into grad school. And I started blogging another incident where I was mad about media coverage of a disaster—there’s a theme here—during Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana also. The media coverage for that event was just terrible and I was—kind of felt like I was stuck in North Dakota watching all my friends in Louisiana go through this hurricane. And the media wasn’t covering it well. And so I created this blog mostly just to, like, vent my frustration and my anger with this situation. And I really just wrote it for my friends and family. Like, I shared it on my personal Facebook. I don’t know, like, ten, fifteen people probably read it, and that was that. And it was kind of just a side project, an outlet. I didn’t even, like…
SAMANTHA: …think that other people other than my friends and family would be reading it. And so I kind of just kept that blog up as I went through grad school, again, mostly because my friends and family were interested in what I was studying and what I was doing. And so I kind of just wrote about whatever came to mind related to disaster—something we talked about in class, something that was in the news, whatever it was. And it was this really, really informal—you know, this is, like, early 2012, 2013, right, where it was—blogging was this much more informal thing than it kind of is now. And so I always kept just my normal voice. The voice that I use to blog and to write articles is the, like, same voice I use in normal conversation. And so I guess for me I’ve never really had a problem switching back between a more academic voice and a public-facing voice. I think probably because I was blogging throughout grad school while I was simultaneously learning…
SAMANTHA: …to write in a more academic voice, I was able to do both of those simultaneously. And so I’ve never felt a conflict with it, although I definitely agree with you in that I see other scientists, other researchers, really struggling with that. But yeah, I think I kind of just got lucky in terms of the timing of writing that blog.
BOB: How do you decide whether you’re going to blog about something, tweet about it, do a video, pitch a talk? Because you do all of them.
SAMANTHA: I think there’s a couple different factors play into it. First of all, all of these things that I’ve done have kind of just been trial and error. I know I’m a scientist, so I should probably take a more scientific approach. But it really has just been trial and error. I think I’m most active on Twitter, one, because it’s the quickest and easiest of all of them, right? I can send off a tweet as I’m walking to class really easily. And also there’s an opportunity for much more, like, feedback and conversation that happens on Twitter. And actually I think…
SAMANTHA: …at this point I have enough people following me on Twitter where there is a really good mix of disaster survivors, everyday people, emergency-management practitioners and experts from around the world, disaster researchers. And so the thing I love about Twitter is that we’re able to pull all of those voices into a single conversation. That’s kind of where and why my focus is primarily on Twitter. Secondarily, you know, I really love blogging. I wish that I had more time to blog. I have a million blog ideas, but not blogging very much has to mostly do with time. I have to be really careful about how I’m managing my time for this kind of outreach. And if I have the option to write an article for the Washington Post, or post that same story on my blog, obviously I’m going to go with the Washington Post; it reaches more people. That’s what’s most important to me is the reach. So I have a decent following on my blog, but those other news…
SAMANTHA: …outlets have a bigger following. And so those are the ones that I feel like I kind of have to prioritize.
BOB: I’ve been helping researchers communicate with non-specialists for over 20 years, and one thing I’m pretty sure about is that there are a few researchers like you who are really good at public engagement, and then there are a lot who struggle with it. Should everybody in science be doing science communication? Should institutions figure out ways for those who are good at it to do more of it while other researchers, the ones who aren’t so good at it, just stick to research?
SAMANTHA: I don’t necessarily know that every scientist needs to be doing science communication. I think that there are some disaster researchers who are really, really good at research, and that is what they should be spending the majority of their time on. I think there’s other disaster researchers that are really, really good at teaching, and that is what they should be spending the majority of their time on. And then there’s others who are better—naturally just have those natural skills to be better…
SAMANTHA: …at science communication. And I think it’s fair to say, like, well, then we should spend out time doing that. Of course that kind of clashes with the approach of tenure, right, where you need to be doing all three simultaneously and be doing all three well. So there’s this, like, weird expectation that has to be managed there. But I also think that there’s value in saying, “Hey, you go do the research. You tell me what the findings are. Let me do that translating part,” right? “I have a platform already. I know how to translate these studies into things that people are going to be interested in reading about. Just let me do that,” right? There almost needs to be a slightly more of, like, a team effort in that sense. And I think that maybe we’re headed in that direction. I don’t know; hard to say.
BOB: Your Twitter handle is “SamLMontano,” all one word. And when you started the account you didn’t reveal either your gender or your age. You were under age 30 at the time that we’re talking. What were your fears…
BOB: …and have they gone away?
SAMANTHA: So the profession of emergency management is dominated by older white males. It’s a product of most emergency managers coming out of a first responder and military background. And so when I got started in emergency management I was—when I started grad school I was 22 probably, and so I was a young woman in this field. And I looked around, and luckily in my department we had a lot of female professors. And so in that sense I saw people who look like me. But when I went out into the field I was very often the only woman in a room of, like, 20 people. And so it was really intimidating, both gender and age, that intersection of those two. And so when I started to be on Twitter and kind of started to have again this more, like, public-facing role, I was pretty nervous about…
SAMANTHA: …that. Because when I went to present at conferences and whatnot I was kind of brushed aside a little bit by some of the folks who had been around doing this for a while. Because I didn’t look like them, I didn’t look like somebody who—I looked too young to know what I was talking about, right, all of these assumptions that were placed on me and what I was saying. And I felt like the attention was much more on me rather than the work and the research. And I didn’t want to have that distraction in what I was doing publicly. I also looked at Twitter and saw how women, especially women of color, are treated on Twitter, and it’s awful, and it’s, like, traumatizing. And I was, like, why would I put myself through that, right? And so at first I was very conscious about choosing “Sam.” Luckily I have a name where I can trick people pretty easily. Yeah, that’s why my handle is “SamLMontano” not “Samantha.” And, yeah, I had a different picture at first…
SAMANTHA: …for a while, and I just never mentioned my gender; it never really came up. And I do think that in some cases that probably got my foot in the door in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to get into otherwise. It’s kind of hard to say. Eventually I, like, grew a bigger following and I couldn’t really hide that anymore. And I also—will also say, I became more confident, right, as I got older, as I started accumulating degrees and publishing work, right? I grew my resume, and I had that resume to back up my expertise in what I was saying. And I think that allowed me to be able to kind of reveal more of my personality to people. And now actually—one, I think that was, like, probably a good strategic move if. If I had to go back I would probably do that again. Obviously that’s unfortunate that I feel that way, and it’s kind of sad to look back and realize that was probably something that helped me. That said, I think…
SAMANTHA: …at this point I actually view my gender and my age as helping me be able to communicate. I think of it more as kind of an asset for me now. I think because of my age I’m better able to connect with younger audiences. I think that I have kind of a different perspective of emergency management than maybe folks of other ages have. And I’ve also been really fortunate to find other women who are on Twitter doing science communication, doing public-facing scholarship that I kind of model what I do after, right, who have kind of paved the way for me and kind of taught me how to deal with any harassment that happens, or any of those challenges. So kind of have worked through it, at least I have. Some days it’s more of a struggle than others. But yeah, I view it more as an asset now.
BOB: A lot of scholars hate doing media interviews. They live in fear of being misquoted…
BOB: …having their work misunderstood, not being quoted at all their time being wasted, or maybe even having their ideas used without attribution. Why have you been successful with media? What are your secrets?
SAMANTHA: I don’t know. I think—well, maybe let me just say, like, how I—why I think I’ve been successful to the extent that I have. I think that one thing that’s important for me is that I have worked at building—I don’t know if I want to say “relationships,” but building, like, a rapport with certain reporters. One thing that is maybe a little bit unique for disasters as compared to some other disciplines maybe is that there are relatively few journalists across the country that are reporting on disasters regularly. And at this point I think most of them follow me on Twitter. So one thing is that they’ve really gotten to know me, right? They see who I’m writing for, right? I have the expertise to back it up. I have the title to back it up. And they see me…
SAMANTHA: …you know, tweeting every single day about these various issues, right? And so I’ve kind of built up—again, I don’t know if this is the right word—but, like, a trust or a rapport with a lot of them that I think has allowed—that has resulted in them listening to what I have to say in a way that wouldn’t be the case if I wasn’t on Twitter, didn’t interact with them on any kind of daily basis, and just sent them an email out of the blue saying, “Hey, I published a study. You should write about it,” right? They’re not going to pick up on something like that. So I think that where—and again, this is kind of my guess here—but I think where I’ve been more successful in being able to kind of catch their ear in a way that others maybe haven’t is because I’m doing that, like, day-to-day outreach. Like, it really is, like, a daily thing that I’m doing and building that rapport, which is time-consuming, and difficult, and I don’t blame other scholars for not doing that. But I don’t know if there’s, like, another way or a better way of doing that, but that’s what’s worked for me.
BOB: So you’re not just a researcher, but you’re also an activist. And you think about those two things as mutually-reinforcing from what I understand. Talk more about that. Because a lot of people think you have to put aside your role as a scholar when you take up the role of activist.
SAMANTHA: Yeah. So before I was ever a researcher I was an activist. I grew up in a house, both my parents work in the non-profit sector and were activists themselves in various ways and at various points in time. When I moved to New Orleans I was working exclusively with non-profits or, like, grassroots community organizations. I was working day-to-day with volunteers. We were advocating for changes to policy in the city. We were doing all—like, a variety of tactics, but all at this grassroots level throughout this city related to recovery. And this idea of disaster activism…
SAMANTHA: …has a very long history. It hasn’t always been articulated very well in kind of the mainstream. But the, like, entrance that I had to emergency management came through disaster activism. I did not come in through first-responder military from practice like many other people do. And so that informs kind of everything about how I think about disasters. I went to grad school because I saw that what we were doing out in the field at that, again, grassroots level, wasn’t effective always, and it wasn’t efficient, and very often it wasn’t just for the communities that were going through the disaster. And so I viewed going to grad school as a way to learn what the research is to be able to then go back out into the field and integrate that into those grassroots (movement). I a little bit have gotten trapped in [LAUGHTER] academia, but I still…
SAMANTHA: …do try to do everything possible to get that research back out into the groups that are doing that work at the grassroots. I think they are the people that are kind of leading the way in terms of especially disaster recovery. And so that has been, like, kind of my overarching motivation. I think that’s one of the reasons I love being on Twitter is I get research ideas from disaster survivors, from disaster activists all the time, right? They will tweet something out, like, “Hey, I just saw this thing happen in this community that’s going through a recovery,” and I see it and I’m, like, oh, that doesn’t jive with the research. Or, hmm, I don’t know of any research on that, right? And that can help inform the types of questions that I want to be asking in research, right? It’s not—you know, when we think about emergency management there’s the discipline, the people who are studying emergency management, then we have the professionals, the people who are emergency managers working in emergency management agencies. But then we have this, like, third group…
SAMANTHA: …of people that is literally everyone else. Like, everyone from non-profits, to businesses, to actual individuals are doing the work of emergency management. We’re all responding in our communities when a disaster happens. We’re all participating in that recovery process. We’re all trying to advocate for policy changes pre-disaster. And what I saw was that we’re doing things to try to connect to researchers and practitioners together and to have a two-way communication there. But we were doing much less to connect the discipline with that, like, other third group of everybody else, and try to open up those lines of communication between those two areas of emergency management. And I think that’s kind of what I zeroed in on largely because that was the group that I have come from myself, right? There’s that old adage that researchers always study themselves. Well, I—like, essentially I focus on non-profits and disaster volunteerism. I, like, essentially was doing that as well, too, when I first started.
BOB: Your big research focus is on the role of non-profits during disasters and volunteers—the role of volunteers. But you talk about lots of different aspects for emergency management publicly. So most researches—too many researches I think are really reluctant to do that, to talk about things that they haven’t done primary research on. Why are you more confident? Is it part of your personal mission? And who have been your models for this?
SAMANTHA: I don’t necessarily know that I have one model of somebody who does that, who I’m intentionally trying to model myself off of. Honestly for me that comes out of there not being other people talking about those topics. So there are other disaster researchers who talk about disasters, but there’s only kind of a handful of us that are out in the media talking about these things. And I think that there’s, like, kind of an ethical question there about when a disaster…
SAMANTHA: …is unfolding, and there is misreporting going on, and people are confused and don’t understand what’s happening, for disaster researchers to sit back and say, “Well, you know, we have all this research that explains what’s happening right now, but we’re not going to tell you because I didn’t, myself, write that study.” I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] That’s a problem for me. And I think that possibly that’s one of the reasons why disaster research hasn’t made it out into the mainstream as much as it should. And I think that maybe in an ideal world each researcher who’s done that specific piece of research is the person that’s out there talking about it. But again, going back to what we said about the realities of needing to teach, and do research, and having the time and the skills to do all of this… Like, we don’t have time for this. And I think when it comes to disasters there’s slightly more urgency than there is with other disciplines. Because there are life-and-death situations happening across the country, across the world, every single day that researchers could be…
SAMANTHA: …providing context for. We can influence the way that policy is written to prevent these disasters from happening in the first place. And I’m not comfortable being one of those very few people with this overarching knowledge and just sitting back and watching everything burn. I’m going to do—and again, this might come from my background in activism—but I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that decisionmakers, survivors, that they have the information that they need to be able to make the right decisions for themselves and their communities, and that’s that.
BOB: Okay, final question. You wrote a blog post a couple years ago about a show at the Whitney Museum that featured Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. And you’re a really good writer. You wrote in this post, very movingly, about the way that we might be becoming desensitized to disaster, especially climate change…
BOB: …as a kind of rolling disaster. How do we walk on this knife edge, understanding climate change as an accelerating and ever-blurring series of disasters, but also somehow staying urgent to each of these disasters and just not growing numb to them?
SAMANTHA: I think when we look back historically we have a narrative about disasters, of them being these kind of one-off unique events from one another that have happened every so often, when in reality disasters are unfolding around us. Somewhere in the world there’s a disaster happening every single day. And as we go into the era of climate change we will see a kind of an acceleration of that, and a growth in severity of those disasters, assuming we stay on our current trajectory. And that actually scares me a lot from kind of a narrative perspective, because it does mean that the…
SAMANTHA: …kind of unusual feeling that a disaster has had in the past may not hold true in the future. And we saw this in 2017 in the United States in a very tangible way, when Harvey, Irma, and Maria all happened within a month and a half of each other. And everybody was exhausted from covering it. People were out of resources, right? The media was kind of feeling like they were running out of things to say about these hurricanes. And you just started to see this—a little bit of a collapse of the Emergency Management System and the inability of the Emergency Management System to really respond in Puerto Rico in a way that was necessary, and to think about how that response in Puerto Rico might’ve looked differently if Harvey and Irma hadn’t (have) just happened. And so I think as we, like, think about the future and how quickly these disasters could kind of start unfolding around us, and the extent of them…
SAMANTHA: …and the severity of them, is something that I think a lot about. And that was also kind of something that Andy Warhol was thinking about many decades ago, right, all this death and—he kind of had a different interpretation of disaster—but this death and disaster that he viewed as being a part of American culture surrounding him. And I don’t necessarily know that I have answers here. I think my best advice is always to lead with compassion. I think that has to be the way we approach the current and also the future in terms of the people in the communities that are actually on the front lines of experiencing these consequences, that we need to listen to what they’re saying, find ways for research and science to support them, but to ultimately kind of view this with a lens of compassion.