When a hurricane or earthquake strikes, a small group of unusual first responders is at the ready: sociologists.
In the past two decades, the ranks of researchers who study disasters, natural and otherwise, have seen their numbers swell. In the wake of a tornado or a hurricane -- or an oil spill or terrorist attack -- these sociologists examine how traditional areas of inquiry, such as issues related to race, gender or social class, unfold in extreme situations.
“They are a really unique opportunity to understand our social world,” said Alice Fothergill, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, of disasters, which she described as a more extreme version of everyday life. “Whatever the behavior is, it’s more exaggerated or sped up in time. There are all these ways in which people are finding that it’s this valuable setting, where people are finding that they have insights that they might not have during non-disaster times.”
Interest among sociologists in researching disasters and their aftermath increased after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992. But it spiked even more after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and especially Hurricane Katrina, which is widely credited with drawing more attention to the racial and socioeconomic aspects of a disaster’s impact. Many argued that the black citizens of New Orleans have had a more difficult time getting support  -- and that the city that is emerging is less hospitable to them.
And while many disaster researchers trained in past decades say they stumbled into the field -- introduced by a faculty adviser or an unusual research opportunity while pursuing another area of sociological study -- students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are beginning to look for disaster programs specifically.
Fothergill entered the field after taking on a research project in graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Although the project involved a generous five-year grant, no students were interested initially, she said. When she finished her Ph.D. in 2001, she was advised that she would be a better job candidate if she described herself as a gender sociologist or a quantitative sociologist -- anything but a sociologist of disaster.
By 2003, that had begun to change, she said. Now more students are interested in her class than there are seats available. “We have students who say, ‘I’ve always wanted to work at FEMA,’ ” said Tricia Wachtendorf, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Delaware and the associate director of the university’s Disaster Research Center . “Very early on, they are attracted to those courses.”
The impact of Katrina and its aftermath on sociology was “enormous,” Fothergill said. Hundreds of papers have been published on the disaster’s effects, both by researchers who usually focus on disasters and by those who normally pursue other avenues of study. Published papers referring to the sociology of disasters or emergencies, which had been climbing steadily since the 1990s, jumped from 378 in 2005 to 577 in 2006, the first year after the disaster, and have continued the increase ever since. Papers on the topic at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Las Vegas last week included "Rethinking the Social Basis of Urban Development: Hurricane Katrina Recovery in New Orleans," "First Responders Then and Now: Narrating the 'New Normal' in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," and "Drug Market Reconstitution after Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for Local Drug Abuse Control Initiatives."
“Katrina revealed to a much larger audience the sorts of things that disaster researchers had already been studying, things like social vulnerability, race and class and ethnicity as they relate to disaster victimization and losses,” said Kathleen Tierney, a professor of sociology and the director of the Natural Hazards Center  at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Just about any scholar looking at Katrina would probably find something to study.”
Sociologists who study disaster focus largely on how individuals and communities respond. They watch how local and federal governments put out warnings and how people react to them, including the factors that go into decisions on whether to evacuate. Studies can be short-term, with sociologists arriving as quickly as they can after a disaster has occurred, or longitudinal, tracking the victims of disasters over many years.
Some findings have contradicted common beliefs about disasters: that people usually panic when faced with an emergency, or that they will abandon their posts to flee to safety, Wachtendorf said. “Actually, it’s more difficult to get people to respond or move in a disaster,” she said. “Panic is very rare.” As for “role abandonment,” the idea that people will flee rather than fulfill their duties, it’s disproved in part by stories of emergency managers who were killed when they stayed behind to sound the siren, she said.
As Hurricane Irene approached the East Coast, the sociologists said they would be observing the reaction -- in some cases, while trying to deal with the storm’s effects themselves. “Certainly sociologists would be interested in factors associated with compliance with evacuation orders, where people go to seek shelter, and how well the evacuation process is managed by the authorities that are responsible,” Tierney said. Others might examine the economic impact of a hurricane on areas that depend heavily on tourism, or look for “lessons learned” for local, state and federal emergency planners.
Wachtendorf intended to revisit a survey from earlier this year, in which residents of North Carolina, including the Outer Banks, where Hurricane Irene first made landfall, were asked about their evacuation plans in the event of a hurricane. The survey was completed in July.
Many of the disasters the sociologists study have grabbed headlines, attracting the media as well as academics: Fothergill has studied the 1997 floods in North Dakota, which prompted the largest evacuation in U.S. history in more than a century, and is currently tracking children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Wachtendorf visited Japan after the February earthquake and tsunami for a study on how people with disabilities are affected by disasters.
But other disasters that received less media attention, including the deadly heat wave in Chicago in 1995 and a coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee in 2008, also offer valuable insights, the researchers said.
“It’s much more compelling to show a big storm heading toward the East Coast,” Fothergill said. “Events like that may not be watershed events like Japan or Haiti or 9/11 or Katrina. But they’re very important in adding to that body of knowledge and trying to understand ways to reduce loss of life, reduce injury and reduce property damage in the future.”