A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Researcher Spotlight: Dennis Mileti and the sociology of disaster

In his biographical sketch on the Natural Hazards Center site, it might say that he's retired, but START Researcher Dennis Mileti has yet to stop working. The prolific author and sociologist still serves on advisory boards, gives speeches, conducts research and is the director emeritus of the Natural Hazards Center. As he sees it, he didn't retire, he just completed his time as a university professor in 2004. As he had been in college since he was 17, it was time to "finally graduate from school."

Though he's no longer in the classroom, he's still a teacher, and during my interview with him he conveyed a few life lessons while also teaching me some practical things to do in preparation for any kind of disaster.

Mileti has been a part of START since it began. His colleague at University of Colorado at Boulder, Kathleen Tierney, interrupted him when he was on his way to a meeting. She asked him if he would be part of a team on the bid for the center examining the consequences of terrorist events. He said, "Sure," and ran off to his meeting.

The rest is history. Mileti's life's work has focused on the sociology of disasters, particularly risk communications. He didn't know it then but the allure of that field of study first glimmered to him when he was 10-years-old.

What led you to studying disasters and risk communications?

We had just moved from New York City to Los Angeles and one of the local TV stations showed Godzilla around the clock for a week. I couldn't help but watch it. I was just absolutely fascinated. I thought I was fascinated by the monster, but in hindsight I realize I was fascinated by the way the small herds of people moved when the monster appeared.

Later in life, after I got my master's degree, I went through a damaging earthquake in California. Again, I found myself glued to the TV, this time watching news of the disaster. I remember thinking that the earthquake changed everything that people were doing that day and that I wished I could study some aspect of it. I didn't know exactly what until I went through my doctoral program and there was a seminar on the sociology of disasters. I was hooked.

How has the field changed since you began some 40 years ago?

When I got into the field, there weren't many other people in it on the research side or on the federal agency side. A couple of bookshelves could hold all of the research on the topic. Since then, both the number of researchers and practitioners has mushroomed beyond my wildest imagination. When I began, practitioners didn't necessarily know about the work of social scientists or think it was relevant. Now there's a strong demand for our work.

The internet has changed the field too, and maybe research in general. If something isn't published on the internet, it essentially doesn't exist. I see literature reviews now that don't include crucial pieces written by the masters; written by those who shaped the field. Many of those works still hold true today. You see, human beings - how we are wired, how we tick - do not change because technology changes. The new technology might speed how we access information, but the human animal is unchanged.

Did the field change in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks?

On one hand, it was a game changer. We saw a shift in funding streams and who the power players were. About 75 percent of funds were taken away from studying natural hazards and poured into studying terrorism and homeland security. But, on the other hand, the change didn't matter a whole lot to social scientists. We really don't have an allegiance to one hazard over another. What we study is people and how people respond. It doesn't matter what the hazard agent is. The same kinds of questions and theories apply, whether it's terrorism, or an earthquake, or flooding or a dam failure.

The threat of a tornado terrifies me; what type of natural disaster are you most afraid of?

I can't say I'm personally scared of natural or manmade hazards. I'm wired like all other human beings. Despite all of the disasters I've been through or studied, I really don't think one is going to happen to me. All human beings are hardwired in thinking it will happen to others, not to them. We also go through life not looking past the hoods of our cars. We keep thinking the forces of nature will never be violent.

We are always surprised when it happens. Mother Nature causes the extremes, but human beings cause disasters. We keep populating coastlines and moving near earthquake faults. And I'm no different in that. If you climb up to the roof of my house, you can look at the likely epicenter of the next great California earthquake. That's how human beings are designed. We really don't think it's going to happen to us. Where I might be different though is how I've prepared for the possibility that something could happen. You will find emergency supplies spread throughout my house. Glass bottles of Perrier water in the guest bedroom closet.

Ramen Noodles in the laundry room. Canned goods in the kitchen. To help people prepare, I tell them: "Pretend you're going camping for 10 days in the middle of the dessert, in the middle of the summer and you're all alone. What do you want with you when you're all alone and it's 115 degrees and the sun is bearing down on you. Envision a typical day." For me, I start my day with a cup of coffee and end it with a martini, so my readiness kit includes a cowboy percolator coffee pot, Dura flame logs, a bottle of gin, a tiny ice cube maker and an electric generator.

What has been your favorite class to teach?

Hands down, every single year without variation it was "Introduction to Sociology" for freshman. It was a chance to open the door for young people to look at life on this planet in a way they never thought of before. I really enjoyed teaching the concept of the sociological paradigm - who you think you are isn't determined by you but by other people; that the choices you make in your life aren't actually selected by you.

Can you pick a favorite research project you've worked on?

My favorite project always seems to be the one I'm working on at the moment. I get excited, I think it's the most important thing. I get immersed. Currently, I'm working on a project to determine the most effective way to communicate imminent threats to the public via text messaging on mobile devices. The project, "Comprehensive Testing of Imminent Threat Public Messages for Mobile Devices," aims to give theoretically grounded and empirically tested guidance on the contents of warning messages primarily dispatched through the Commercial Mobile Alert Service.

This project is also enjoyable because of the research team I'm working with: Brooke Fisher Liu, Michele Wood, Hamilton Bean, Jeannette Sutton. These are all very bright, promising scholars on their way to stardom in the research community. The START Consortium is an amalgamation of tons of the brightest people I've ever encountered, who are also among the very nicest people I know.

What piece of advice would you give to a young academic who wants to become "the next Dennis Mileti"?

Aspire to be yourself. Don't aspire to be me. Grow into and develop who you are as a human being by doing what turns you on. Follow your own heart. I wanted to be like Gilbert White, a prominent social geographer.

He had a particular characteristic and ability that no matter who you were - a child, a high school student, a new graduate student or a director of a federal agency - when you came into his presence and had a conversation with him, you left bigger. He pumped you up and gave you energy. I shifted my way of being to pick that up. I tried to do that with my students. To make our interactions not about me, but to leave them with an experience of how great they are.

The Researcher Spotlight is a monthly Q&A series designed to profile START researchers and staff for their accomplishments and personal journey to the field of terrorism studies. To nominate consortium researchers or staff members for consideration, email infostart@start.umd.edu with Researcher Spotlight Suggestion in the subject line.