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Larger disasters ‘inevitable,’ says new Natural Hazards Center director

The following is an exerpt from an article originally published in CU Boulder Today. A link to the full article can be found at the bottom of the page.

By: Lisa Marshall

In the days following 9/11, frightened college students across the country gathered around TVs to get a sense of what was happening in New York City.

Lori Peek, who was just starting her third year of graduate school at CU Boulder, also watched the catastrophe unfold from afar. But soon after the twin towers fell, she packed her bags and flew into the chaos.

"I’d never been to New York or even ridden a subway before," recalls Peek, a research assistant at the Natural Hazards Center at the time. "But I understood it was vital that I get into the field quickly to collect valuable information that would otherwise be lost."

Fast forward 16 years and Peek, who in January returned to Boulder to direct the center, has amassed a unique body of research on how disasters – from terrorist attacks to tornadoes – impact the lives of the vulnerable and marginalized in the days and years to follow.

Her two-year study of the impact 9/11 had on Muslim Americans led to an acclaimed book, Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11. Her work in the Gulf Coast after Katrina and the BP oil spill and Joplin, Missouri – home to the deadliest tornado in 70 years – led to community interventions that help teens better prepare for and recover from disasters. And her 2015 book Children of Katrina, a 7-year project completed with fellow sociologist Alice Fothergill, has been lauded as a groundbreaking exploration of children's long-term recovery.

Peek has no doubt that larger, more destructive disasters are yet to come, due to growing populations in geographically vulnerable areas, unsustainable development and climate change. After spending a decade as a faculty member at Colorado State University and having traveled around the world studying the aftermath of disaster, she returned to the Natural Hazards Center – the nation's clearinghouse for disaster research – to apply the lessons learned.

"We’re in a race, trying to figure out how to work with communities to make them more resilient and be sure that, when disaster strikes, those that are already struggling aren’t left behind," says Peek, also a professor in the sociology department. "To be at this center at this particular time in our nation's history represents an incredible opportunity to work with others to have an impact."

Read the full article in CU Boulder Today.