STILLWATER — From hurricanes in New Jersey to earthquakes in Oklahoma, Dr. Alex Greer has taken his research on disaster recovery in a different direction to Oklahoma State University.
Greer, an assistant professor of political science in his third year at OSU, now teaches students emergency management skills and how to research the effects of different types of natural disasters.
He first visited Oklahoma as part of his research following the Moore tornado of 2013. It was not the first time Greer had dealt with the aftermath of a major disaster.
Six months after Japan’s 2011 tsunami, which killed nearly 16,000 people, he spent five weeks there studying the country’s restructuring and recovery efforts.
“A woman brought out tea for us, and the only possessions she owned were her two teacups,” Greer said. “She had lost her husband, her daughter and her daughter-in-law in the tsunami. I hear those kinds of things, and I think to myself, ‘Now I have to do something about it.’”
As a doctoral student at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, Greer also got a first-hand look at the devastation from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“I saw the government was looking to buy back properties, and it struck me as an interesting and novel thing that they don’t do a lot,” Greer said. “I was interested in how people made the decision to accept that offer or stay in place.”
Greer has since published several recent papers on the effects of home buyouts after a disaster. His research focus has shifted to include victims’ priorities in recovery and relocation, such as access to transportation, proximity to work or potential neighbors and natural landscape.
“Seeing what kinds of things people prioritize is important because then you can set up policies and programs to prioritize those same pieces to influence people’s decision-making in the long term,” Greer said.
Greer works with OSU colleague Dr. Tristan Wu, assistant professor of political science, who is an expert on natural disaster response and preparedness.
Greer and Wu joined the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, which disseminates information about earthquake risk and earthquake engineering research, on a visit to Cushing to study the damage of the 5.0 magnitude Cushing earthquake and interview businesses and households about their responses to the earth tremor.
“If you don’t know what to do in an earthquake, sometimes you make yourself more exposed,” Greer said. “A number of residents I spoke with either ran out of buildings or stood under doorways because they thought that would protect them, but more modern guidance says to get under shelter such as a piece of furniture until the shaking stops.”
Wu, who differs from Greer’s focus on recovery by specializing in response, said they discovered Oklahoma residents have a long way to go before being as prepared as possible for a major disaster.
“People are concerned about earthquake risk in Oklahoma, but they don’t see it as an immediate threat,” Wu said. “Based on our surveys, preparedness is still very low, and people still don’t really know what’s going on.”
The two are working on an early warning system similar to what Japan, Mexico and Taiwan use to detect early signs of earthquakes before they hit.
“Dr. Greer studies more of the recovery side of things, and I do more preparedness and response, but it’s all connected,” Wu said. “When people understand what to do, the response is better. We want to persuade people to learn how to take care of themselves because at the end of the day, the first responders aren’t firefighters or emergency managers; they’re the neighbors and people who happen to be near a disaster.”
Greer said he hopes his research has practical applications and effects on the way people handle disaster recovery.
“I want to make sure I use that knowledge to make the process better for people who are already dealing with disasters,” Greer said. “That’s the big focus and end goal of what I do.”