Disaster Justice

Meet Dr. Samantha Montano, a disasterologist—aka someone who studies disasters. She shares an excerpt from her newly released book, Disasterology, with The Frontline.

A Native American water protector rides down from a ridge that overlooked Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 4, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Dr. Samantha Montano points to this movement as a model of what we need moving forward. (Photograph by Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Dr. Samantha Montano has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. Her story as a disasterologist—someone who studies disasters—begins in post-Katrina New Orleans where she visited as part of a service trip. She saw that devastation firsthand and knew she had to do more to help. Research was her answer.


Since then, she’s witnessed disaster from New England blizzards to police brutality at Standing Rock. Most of the time, Montano stumbled upon these events by accident. It seems the universe has a way of placing her right where she needs to be. Now, she’s an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.


Montano is finally sharing her story with the world in a newly released book Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis, which was published Tuesday. The book is part memoir and part analysis. It lays out how climate change is exacerbating disasters, how humans create disasters with bad planning, how leaders can adequately respond to disasters, and how people must come together to demand more from our policymakers. Montano wants readers to walk away from this book with a better understanding of the new reality that’s upon us as new disasters seem to make headlines every other day. 


“Hopefully, this book isn’t just about learning about disasters but is a way for people to find how they fit into this bigger disaster picture and find ways to influence their own actions based on what they’ve learned,” Montano said. 


Welcome to The Frontline, where Montano is sharing a chapter excerpt. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. “Creating a Movement for Disaster Justice” comes toward the end of the book, outlining the need for communities to coalesce and organize across issues. She points to Standing Rock as a powerful example of what we need more of. 


“Standing Rock meant different things to different people, but for me it was a glimpse of how we fix this,” Montano writes in her book. “Intersectional activism is the only way we survive the climate crisis and Standing Rock was, to me, evidence that it was possible.”


Read the full chapter below and order yourself a copy here.


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In October of 2016 we were quickly nearing the months when Fargonians hibernate for the winter. I was in the middle of the stressful process of writing up the findings from my research trips to Texas for my dissertation. A friend from college, one of the girls I had evacuated New Orleans with during hurricane Gustav, decided she needed to stage a small rescue mission to get me out of the house before winter set in. 


We planned a spontaneous weekend road trip out west to make the best of the last bit of warmer weather. My friend drove in from Minneapolis, picked me up in Fargo, and we headed west to Bismarck. From the capital we turned south, bound for the Badlands. As we made our way towards South Dakota, along an otherwise barren route, we were brought to a stop by concrete barriers and the North Dakota National Guard with guns in hand. 


In 2014, Dakota Access announced they would build a pipeline to carry oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to southern Illinois, just an hour south of where I had been born in Taylorville. The pipeline was originally planned to cut through the predominantly white city of Bismarck but was later re-routed along the Standing Rock reservation through ancestral burial grounds and under the Missouri River. The new route threatened to contaminate the drinking water supply of 18 million people. 


The legal fight began immediately, with groups in multiple states suing to prevent the pipeline construction. In North Dakota, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe explained how the pipeline would threaten their right to clean water and their way of life. Despite arguing that their sovereignty—as recognized by the U.S. Congress in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851—was being infringed upon, the Corps of Engineers and other government agencies allowed the project to move forward. 


What we had accidentally stumbled upon was the Standing Rock protest that had begun months earlier with a prayer camp established by a group of native youth activists. I was marginally aware of what was happening with the pipeline, but it had not yet received the mainstream coverage it would just a few weeks later. So, despite my geographic proximity and concern for environmental issues, I had been focused on finishing my dissertation in time to graduate. It was not until we stumbled upon this unnerving checkpoint that I realized something big was happening.


As you might expect, two young white women were not perceived to be a security threat and, without question, we were waived through the barriers. We drove on and passed a fence covered in flags that ran the length of the road. While I hadn’t grasped the gravity of what was happening at Standing Rock, others from around the world certainly had. People from other tribes, countries, and organizations had sent flags in a display of solidarity, which had been hung end to end for as far as we could see. 


A ways down the road, the camp came into view. There were rows of tents, tipis, and campers, a distinctive site in an otherwise isolated location. In fact, everything about the situation made it feel like the protest was very contained. Not wanting to intrude, we carried on to South Dakota, with the newfound realization that this protest was bigger and more complicated than we had understood.


I spent the next month learning about the Water Protectors from Fargo. I more closely followed and kept up with updates from protest leaders like LaDonna Allard. I watched the increasing media coverage from journalists like Amy Goodman and learned the history of the area and the treaties. By mid-November, the situation was escalating rapidly. The national media did not drop everything to cover the protests, but there was a growing awareness around the country as politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and celebrities like Shailene Woodley and Mark Ruffalo raised their profile. The mainstream media that did arrive to cover the protests seemed to not fully know what to make of the situation. When asked why the federal government was not honoring the treaties, a CNN reporter shrugged and said, “you got me!”


By Thanksgiving I was sitting at my parent’s house watching a livestream of North Dakota police blasting peaceful Water Protectors with water cannons in frigid 20-degree weather. Someone was able to maintain a 6+ hour livestream on Facebook and showed the world rubber bullets and tear gas shot indiscriminately into a crowd of peaceful protesters. 26 protesters were hospitalized and over 300 injured. As a human being, I was disgusted by the government’s violent actions. As a disasterologist, I was furious. 


The Governor of North Dakota requested help through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)— which had been put in place for the sharing of resources during emergencies and disasters— to bring in law enforcement agencies from surrounding states. Over 50 law enforcement agencies from as far away as Louisiana and Maryland deployed to North Dakota. We were not only watching a livestream of police brutality; we were watching a livestream of police brutality facilitated by the emergency management system. Specifically, a tool of this system – mutual aid agreements – was being used to physically attack the very people they should have been protecting. 


It is tempting, perhaps, to look at the situation in North Dakota and think that the emergency management system, or at least the tools of the system, had been corrupted. The history, though, of how the system was built and who built it suggests that it was operating in the way it had been intended – to serve white, privileged communities at the expense of marginalized communities. In an echo of the Black Lives Matter movement, the conflict at Standing Rock again raised the question of who government, especially law enforcement, are “protecting and serving.” The willingness to protect white lives and property, to serve some communities but not others, is at the root of emergency management’s persistent and biggest failures.

Standing Rock married the right to clean water, the militarization and brutality of law enforcement, Indigenous rights, and climate change.


The turning point came just before Thanksgiving (the timing of which was not lost on many). The protests grew rapidly with over 200 tribal Nations standing in solidarity and sister-protests breaking out in cities around the country. Tribal elders and protest leaders invited non-Natives to join the efforts. Environmental activists, human rights advocates, and veterans, among others came to North Dakota by the thousands. In December, the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition was invited to Sacred Stone to participate in an interfaith service, and I tagged along. 


I went with a van full of people, this time having a much better idea of the situation at hand. The seasons had changed and the ground was covered in a dusting of snow that drifted to form little silos, foreshadowing the spires of the Black Hills further in the distance. As we made the turn south in Bismarck, I stared out at the familiar sights of small farms, old churches, and fields of cattle waiting in anticipation for the unusual sight of Sacred Stone. 


When it came into view, I was shocked by the growth of the site of protest in just two months. The photos and video footage had not captured its sprawl. The protest no longer felt contained. The tents and tipis had multiplied and were joined by more makeshift structures, painted busses, and cars laid out end to end, all the way to the river and hills. This time there were no roadblocks or men with guns to stop us – they had moved into the hills above to watch.


On this particular day, an estimated 8,000 people gathered amid rising smoke under a clear winter sky. In below zero temperatures, gusts of wind churned with the constant hover of helicopters circling in the distance. Food was cooked over open fires, and booths selling crafts and supplies lined the muddy snow-covered aisles. Veterans shoveled ditches and built tents. 

I stood in a crowd with people from different places and of different faiths listening to speeches. It was freezing and being packed into the crowd brought some semblance of warmth. I was too short to see the speakers so instead I looked up at a clear blue winter sky and the sun trying its best to reach us. There were drones and helicopters circling above and a flag with a picture of earth on it was flying overhead. I watched it flapping in the breeze that I couldn’t feel because I was sheltered by the crowd around me. 


I heard Dr. Cornel West before I even knew he was there to speak. His distinctive voice carried over the crowd and under the earth flag as he contextualized the fight at Standing Rock among historical uprisings in the U.S. He connected the movement at Standing Rock to the Black freedom movement, reminding the crowd not to: “let anybody tell you that the original sin of the United States was the enslavement of Black people. That was the second one. The first one was the mistreatment and the dispossession of land and bodies and land and murder and mayhem of indigenous brothers and sisters.” Standing Rock was a continuation of the civil rights movement and the precursor to the protests and marches that continued after the 2016 presidential election. 


His words made me think more about the intersecting movements that were represented at Standing Rock. People from radically different places who had spent their lives fighting their own battles dropped everything to sleep in tents in the middle of a North Dakota winter. (Do you know how cold North Dakota is in the winter?!) Standing Rock married the right to clean water, the militarization and brutality of law enforcement, Indigenous rights, and climate change. 


I stood on muddy packed snow until I could feel the cold sink in through the bottom of my boots. The sun began to set as we piled back into the van. As we drove back to Fargo, we passed a line of cars and busses carrying in reinforcements, most of them veterans. In Bismarck our cell service came back, and we saw on the news the easement had been denied. The Corps would have to conduct a full Environmental Impact Assessment, which meant the pipeline construction would be temporarily stopped. It was a fleeting victory. 


One of Trump’s first Executive Orders was to expedite construction, and the pipeline was completed in 2017. The protests did not stop the pipeline, but for a moment, the arrival of thousands of veterans to stand alongside Native Americans on the plains of North Dakota after months of blizzards, violence, and well wishes from around the world, was enough to make the country stop and look. Standing Rock meant different things to different people, but for me it was a glimpse of how we fix this. Intersectional activism is the only way we survive the climate crisis and Standing Rock was, to me, evidence that it was possible. 

Dr. Samantha Montano got to hear intellectual Dr. Cornel West speak during an interfaith ceremony at Oceti Sakowin Camp on December 4, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. (Photograph by Scott Olson / Getty Images)

I’ve been to all manners of protests in my life from Black Lives Matter to climate change. I went to my first protest before I could talk. I’ve protested BP on the Louisiana coast and housing discrimination in New Orleans. I counter protested Westboro and anti-abortion demonstrations in conservative Louisiana towns. I was in Athens, Greece during the 2015 anti-austerity protests and at the Women’s March in Washington DC. Standing Rock felt different to me. I had never seen so many different people and movements come together in such a committed way. The frozen plains of North Dakota struck me as an unlikely place for the climate movement, so often centered along the coasts and in big cities, to blossom.


I have seen the ineffective approach of the emergency management system in Camp Ellis. I have seen it sputter in Houston and fail in New Orleans. I saw emergency management manipulated into a tool for state-sanctioned violence during the Standing Rock protests. Emergency management, which should have the purpose of keeping communities safe, is persistently failing to do so, not least because the people who are in positions of power are not confronting racism, capitalism, and the other manifestations of power that drive inequality in risk, impacts, and recovery. 


The use of water cannons in freezing temperatures on peaceful protestors is not separate from the failure to prioritize rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward. The catastrophe in New Orleans and the crisis in North Dakota are connected to Houston’s development-driven policy that is drowning the city, which is connected to the oil-covered wetlands in Southeast Louisiana, and President Trump throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans. 


In each of these places I have found people working to expose and right the injustices in this system. There are examples from all around the country of communities coming together to protect themselves and fight for their future. In Camp Ellis, I saw community meetings packed with residents. I saw organizers pushing for flood mitigation to be put on the ballot in Houston and around every corner in New Orleans is a small but determined community organization that rebuilt the city.


Despite persistent local efforts on local issues across the country, there has never been enough public pressure to make comprehensive national changes. The tradition thus far has been that, to the extent that there is disaster activism, it occurs in silos, largely separated by either disaster or place. After Katrina, New Orleanians stirred up public pressure for changes to federal policy, as did the east coast following Sandy but the efforts largely faded. Even efforts related to affected communities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane season were largely separate endeavors. 


At Standing Rock, I saw clearly the connections between various movements across the country. In the years since, the whispers of a national “disaster movement” have grown louder. The Standing Rock protests, the public outcry over water quality in Flint, Michigan, Hurricane Maria survivors rallying in the streets of Puerto Rico and Washington DC, the Sunrise Movement and other youth lead climate groups, and the March for Our Lives are all products of crisis. 


These movements and protests, the majority youth led, are in large part a response to disasters, and demonstrate the urgency and righteousness of their broader movements they represent. Disasters are themselves a manifestation of why these movements matter. Each protest intertwines the climate change and environmental movements, anti-austerity, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and gender equality. Disaster activism is built from the foundation and guidance of these other social movements. Disaster is a common thread that weaves these movements together. If that thread was recognized and elevated, a unified disaster movement could emerge.


When I left New Orleans for Fargo, I thought I was going to graduate school to learn how to more effectively manage volunteers and donations after a hurricane. I thought I’d learn about a handful of policies that needed to be implemented to allow communities to recover more quickly. In the years since, I have realized that our problems are so much bigger. There is no single policy, no magic amount of money, no perfect plan that is going to meet the needs of communities across the country. It is much more complicated than that. Our failure to meet the needs of these communities requires no less than a movement for disaster justice. I have often found myself wondering what such a movement could look like. I wonder what it could do – I wonder what we could do. 


There are absolutely people around the country (and world) who are already doing this work, but the efforts in one place are not being connected back to the work being done in other places in any strategic way. And so, in the absence of a broader movement it is easy not to recognize our power – and we do have power. 


Our power comes from our shared experiences of injustice – done to us or witnessed by us. Now we need to transform those experiences into organized action. And, like Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal activists, we cannot stop once our own crisis is resolved. We must push forward to protect communities everywhere. People will go to great lengths to protect themselves, their land, and their livelihoods—something that those in power have a history of forgetting.


Excerpted from Disasterology @ 2021 by Samantha Montano, used with permission by Park Row Books.