As wildfires increasingly ravage suburban neighborhoods and floods inundate towns, more and more researchers are studying how communities recover and people can take precautions to mitigate damage. Few have been as close to the subject as Deserai Crow, a new associate professor in the CU Denver School of Public Affairs (SPA).

Deserai Crow
CU Denver professor Deserai Crow

Crow, whose PhD is in environmental policy, was raised in Colorado. She’s seen firsthand the damage natural disasters can cause—including in places like Lyons and Longmont, two communities where she grew up. They were among the areas that were the hardest it during the 2013 floods.

“Growing up in Colorado shaped a lot of my own values and experiences,” Crow said. “So many of us in Colorado really value the outdoors and what the state has to offer environmentally, but at the same time this gorgeous landscape we live within presents a number of hazards and risks we have to become accustomed too.”

“It was a very emotional experience to see those communities that I grew up in and that I am so familiar with get hit so hard,” Crow said. “My instinct was to ask how can I do something, how can my research be useful, if not for those communities, then for helping understand the lessons other communities could learn.”

That instinct led to a study looking at whether different recovery strategies and processes result in better outcomes. It was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Research and results

Crow’s work on recovery after disaster also looks at how risks can be reduced before a disaster strikes. With major floods and wildfires becoming common in urban areas along the Front Range, Crow’s research and teaching is timely and relevant.

“We’ve been looking at what strategies agencies and local governments can use to educate and incentivize mitigating hazards,” Crow said. Upcoming work includes a possible experimental survey “to try to understand what information actually makes people think differently about wildfires, because we just keep hearing the same thing over and over again.”

That could mean finding messages that get people to use fire-resistant building materials for their homes or to create what experts call defensible space around their properties that’s clear of flammable material.

It might be up to governments, agencies, nonprofits and researchers to spread those messages. Crow has analyzed media coverage of major wildfires, including the one that hit the Colorado Springs area in 2012. One lesson was how few stories there were about policy choices and their consequences.

“There’s very little conversation about are we making good choices about where we build and how we build and the requirements for building in risk-prone landscapes,” Crow said. That means the window of opportunity to make beneficial changes in those areas might be lost.

Whether current politicians listen to researchers like Crow or not, she’s determined that students she teaches at SPA understand the work of academics can benefit future policymakers and the people they serve.

“I think scholarship, whether it’s very theoretical scholarship or very empirical scholarship, is best used in the classroom when you can use it to teach students to be more critical analysts and professionals,” Crow said. “Good theory teaches us how the world works around us.”

Changing careers, coming home

Crow’s Colorado connections run through the University of Colorado Denver. She received her master’s in public administration from SPA in 2002.

“It’s really fun coming back to a program that has grown so much and developed into a nationally recognized leader in so many fields.”

The path Crow took to graduate school was not direct. She graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a journalism degree, and she spent a few years in TV news. She soon realized she needed a career change.

“I was always a political junky, a policy wonk, and environmental issues have always been personally important to me,” Crow said. “I wanted to be more hands on and to try do something, to learn about the substance, rather than just reporting on it.”

After getting her masters, Crow worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on issues related to endangered species. But a faculty mentor from her master’s program helped her come to understand the impact academic research can have, so she decided to get a Ph.D. in environmental policy.

Between 2008 and this summer, Crow was an assistant professor at CU Boulder before CU Denver hired her.

“It does feel like a homecoming in certain ways,” Crow said, although she notes the School of Public Affairs has changed substantially since her time as a student.

“It’s really fun coming back to a program that has grown so much and developed into a nationally recognized leader in so many fields,” she said. “It was a great place to get an education before, but its national stature both for teaching and for research has only grown over those years.”

This year, U.S. News and World Report ranked SPA’s environmental policy and management program as the tenth-best in the country.

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