Credit: Stephen Sauer
Ideas Made to Matter
The ‘Disasterology’ author wants us to rethink emergency management
Samantha Montano’s research may be academic, but it’s informed by her relief work on the front lines of major disasters. She volunteered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, on the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill, and in Alabama and Missouri following devastating tornado strikes.
Those hands-on experiences led Montano, who gave a keynote presentation at the 2021 MIT Water Summit, to become a passionate advocate for emergency management policy reform and disaster justice, which she teaches at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
Her new book, “Disasterology: Dispatches from The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis,” argues that we aren’t doing enough to prevent or prepare for disasters, which will only become more prevalent.
“Between the pandemic, the climate crisis, wild development decisions, deferred infrastructure maintenance, and sketchy industry action, we are surrounded by disaster,” Montano writes.
Most important, she writes, is the realization that climate and disaster work are inextricably linked. “If we do not radically change our emergency management policy and approach to management disasters, the apocalyptic Hollywood disaster scenes that come to mind when we think about climate change could become real life."
We talked with Montano about how she maintains a basket of Post-It notes for her ideas, then works across disciplines to bring them to fruition.
What inspires you?
I went to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure to help with rebuilding efforts. I was horrified by not only the conditions and political decisions that had led to the catastrophe itself but also by the inefficiency and inequality of the recovery. Since then, my driving inspiration is the belief that we can make our approach to emergency management more effective, efficient, and equitable. I am laser-focused on it. All of the work I do must, in some way, contribute to that goal — or I don’t do it.
Where do you get ideas?
From everywhere. My academic discipline is emergency management, but I read across any discipline that does disaster-related research. One of the key approaches we take in emergency management is to look across disciplines and synthesize their research findings into something useful for policy and practice. Being trained in synthesizing across such a broad field is a really particular skill that completely changes how you see the world. It makes it possible to see problems and solutions that others miss when they work in really siloed environments.
I also get a lot of ideas from historical disasters. There’s great value in looking backward to see what worked and what didn’t. So much disaster experience has been lost to history. I spend a lot of time reading first-hand accounts of 19th- and early 20th-century disasters. There are so many calls for “innovations” and tech fixes to solve our disaster-related problems, but so much of what we need to do to make this system better are basic policy changes that were worked out over a century ago.
How do you keep track of new ideas?
If I’m near my desk, the idea goes on a Post-it note. I usually leave it hanging on my computer for a while, and then if nothing really comes of it, I move the Post-it to a little basket I keep under my desk. Every few months I pull the basket out and go through it to see if any of those ideas resonate with a project I’m working on. I also am notorious for waking up in the middle of the night with ideas — those go in my notes app on my phone. There’s also a very complex system of notebooks and Google Docs that I’ve developed over the years that I’d be lost without.
Who do you share new ideas with?
Anyone who will listen — friends, family, colleagues! I have to talk through my ideas for a long time before I feel ready to act on them, and I find getting feedback from both people in my field, but also outside of my field, is immensely helpful. Once I have a sense of how an idea could manifest into a specific project, I approach colleagues who may be interested in collaborating. I very rarely work on a project alone. I am lucky to work with an incredible group of disaster researchers who all have different strengths. We spend hours and hours talking through our ideas before they ever become anything concrete.
When do you know it is time to abandon an idea?
For me an idea has to solve a problem and be useful to someone, or it’s not worth pursuing. But I don’t think I’ve ever abandoned an idea completely. If anything, I’ll put an idea aside for a while, until it’s the right time to come back to it.
How do you know an idea is a good one?
I know an idea is good when I go to explain it to one of my research partners and they cut me off halfway through and say, “Yes, let’s do it” with no hesitation. That kind of gut reaction should always be trusted. It signals that an idea is filling a gap in the field.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
My overarching idea is that we can completely transform the way we do emergency management. We’ve needed reform for a long time, but it is becoming more urgent now as we see an increasing risk across the country and around the world, in part because of the climate crisis.
I believe that the future of emergency management is one that works toward disaster justice. It’s a system that prioritizes the actual prevention of disaster by addressing the root causes of our risk. When a disaster cannot be prevented entirely, we need a system that will more effectively and quickly meet the needs of all who have been affected. It’s a system where recovery does not re-traumatize disaster survivors, but rather quickly gives them the resources needed to move forward with their lives.
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