House Hearing on National Disasters Stresses Importance of Communication and Expedited Research

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held “Coping with Compound Crises: Extreme Weather, Social Injustice, and a Global Pandemic“, inviting witnesses Roxane Cohen Silver, FABBS President and Professor of Psychological Science, Medicine, and Public Health, University of California, Irvine and Samantha Montano, a “disasterologist” and Assistant Professor of Emergency Management, Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Mikie Sherill (D-NJ) began the hearing noting that our government “lacks robust funding for emergency management research”. In her opening statement, House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said that the crises that face our country are “impacting not only our citizens’ physical well-being, but also their mental health.” In her testimony and elaborated on in response to a question from Chairwoman Johnson on data collection and research priorities, Silver underscored the importance of the Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism offered by the National Science Foundation. The ability to conduct research as soon as a crises begins is critical in trauma research.

Montano described the inadequacies of our current disaster management system and the need for “proactive and not reactive” policies. She also expressed the need to better provide for Black, indigenous, and low-income communities that experience disproportionate impacts and are particularly insufficiently supported. In response to a question from Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK), Montano also described the interdisciplinary nature of emergency management, involving psychologists, communication researchers, and sociologists, to understand how to best institute policies.

A running theme in questions that followed from Rep Babin (R-TX) and Rep Casten (D-IL), was the importance of coordination and streamlining of services, as well as clear communication and transparency. Silver noted that the success of emergency response is centered around trust, and that “if people don’t trust the communications and don’t trust the communicators, it doesn’t really matter what the science tells us.” Hearing conflicting information exacerbates stress, increasing the likelihood that people will suffer depressive symptoms. Montano also said almost seven decades of research shows that people are empowered by information so they can become active participants in disaster response.