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Shirley Laska Award Statement

This year’s co-winner of the ASA’s Public Understanding of Sociology Award is Shirley Laska.Professor Laska has been an important and prolific scholar of environmental sociology and disaster studies for the past four decades.From taking her PhD at Tulane University in 1972 to her current position as Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology (CHART) at the University of New Orleans, Professor Laska has dedicated her scholarly career to understanding how Louisiana and surrounding coastal communities respond to different types of disasters – natural, technological, and terrorist.Her impressive career includes the publication of four books, dozens of articles, and countless professional reports.She was awarded the ASA Environment and Technology Section’s Distinguished Contribution Award in 2000 and served as the Associate Vice-Chancellor at the University of New Orleans.

It was Professor Laska’s efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that inspired the Committee on the Public Understanding of Sociology to grant her this award.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005, Professor Laska worked to draw attention to the hazards faced by New Orleans in the event of such a catastrophic hurricane.As the Director of CHART, Professor Laska worked with faculty, graduate students, and staff on a variety of community-based participatory research projects premised on the notion that members of vulnerable communities are the real experts about the challenges and risks they would face in a disaster. This research resulted in an eerily predictive article published in the National Hazards Observer in 2004 entitled, “What if Hurricane Ivan had Not Missed New Orleans?” In 2005, prior to Hurricane Katrina, Professor Laska testified before Congress about the dangers faced by the city of New Orleans.In those Congressional hearings, Professor Laska predicted that a category four hurricane like Hurricane Ivan directly hitting New Orleans would result in thousands of people dying, tens of thousands more being left behind and that those left behind would be disproportionately members of marginalized communities.Three days before Katrina struck, Professor Laska was contacted by the National Weather Service asking what measures could be taken to mitigate some of the effects that we saw unfold just days later.

Hurricane Katrina displaced Professor Laska from her home and resulted in the near total destruction of the CHART office and library space on the University of New Orleans campus.Despite these hardships, Professor Laska gave countless media interviews, made dozens of public presentations, and met with policy leaders in the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina.Her work is largely responsible for helping ordinary citizens, policy-makers, and politicians understand the results of Hurricane Katrina in a new way using a sociological lens.Hurricane Katrina itself is now routinely credited for “revealing” the struggles associated with race and poverty on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of disaster, but it was Professor Laska’s tireless effort that made it happen.Professor Laska provided a framework which facilitated a transformation in public consciousness.  Hurricane Katrina and its effects changed from an Act of God to a socially constructed event.Using the tools of sociology and her own research, she helped educate Americans that environmental disasters are not natural or random.Rather, they are social and unequal in profound ways.Today, almost half of all the residents of the United States (approximately 150 million people) live in coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes and other extreme weather events.Of these at-risk coastal residents, many are elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, poor, single mothers, and children.

Professor Laska is uniquely positioned to address one of the crucial issues facing the planet in our lifetime – global warming – and the catastrophic natural and human events that will affect societies around the globe in the years to come.Professor Laska is uniquely skilled to help us understand and prepare for such events, but also to allow ordinary citizens to be part of addressing these monumental challenges.For these reasons, the committee is delighted to award Professor Laska this year’s Public Understanding of Sociology Award.