10/06/05 — MOC professor makes disaster studies a career

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MOC professor makes disaster studies a career

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 6, 2005 1:48 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Dr. Christopher Dyer, dean of arts and sciences and a professor of anthropology at Mount Olive College, has done extensive research on the devastating aftermath of natural disasters.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, though, it struck home.

"This event is affecting people here at my institution as well as my own family ties," he said. "We have had five family households, five sets of folks related to us here displaced by Hurricane Katrina."

Dyer's wife was born and raised in New Orleans and still has relatives living there. Stepson Marc Welch narrowly missed being there, as he had already left to begin his first semester as a freshman at MOC.

"He moved here a week before the hurricane hit, so it wasn't even in his mind that he was leaving an area that would be involved in a disaster," Dyer said.

From an academic standpoint, Dyer said the hurricane has changed a portion of this nation forever. It is a pattern he has seen before.

The hurricane has "virtually taken out a major American city," he said, displacing more than one million people. This is just a microcosm you can repeat tens of thousands of times in this area. It's not going to get any better any time soon."

The ripple effect will likely go on for years, he said.

"Particularly things like traumatic stress, occupational dislocation, family problems, disaster, alcoholism, suicide; I have seen it all," he said.

Dyer said he has spent years researching events ranging from earthquakes in Mexico and the Exxon Valdez spill to Hurricane Andrew. He has heard many stories, listening to how individuals as well as communities have been affected by the tragedies.

The world is growing increasingly more vulnerable to disasters, he said. In the last two decades, there has been a 35 percent increase in severe hurricane events, for example. Instead of being reactive or taking a Band-aid approach, though, action needs to be taken, he said.

"Florida has been more prepared because they have been hit so many times," he said. "It's not good and unfortunately there's been an ongoing debate about global climate change. Right now, it's not a matter of argument. There's no doubt about what's going on and what the cause is."

The storms appear to be getting more powerful, he said. With the earth experiencing more increasing temperatures, what can be done about it?

Dyer said it is important to become better prepared and figure out ways to mitigate the situation. He has been looking toward regional and national planning as a means to create a society and culture that is more disaster resilient.

One suggestion he supports is developing a disaster response and research center in North Carolina. His vision would be to have a place where people could do collaborative work, interacting with city planners and managers at the state level.

"We need to come up with ways to increase adaptive flexibility of community," he said. "Because of the costs of continuing severity of these events, people are going to have to become more self-reliant."

It comes down to thinking about values, he said.

"We're not listening to our environment, to the world as good stewards and reacting in a way to do something about it," he said. "We can't afford to pay for all these hurricanes; we can't afford not to."

Citing the frontier attitude possessed by this country's ancestors, Dyer said it was one not just of panic and desperation or not knowing what to do.

"We're all in this together," he said. "We're fighting a war here against Mother Nature, that we didn't start.

"The tools that we have to fight back here are inadequate."