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Natural Hazards Center Working Papers

Some of the reports with their blue covers

The reports were nicknamed the Blue Cover Reports (photo copyright Ilan Kelman, 2014).

Commentary on The Blue Cover Reports: Natural Hazards Research Working Papers. Department of Geography, University of Toronto.
By Ian Burton (3 September 2014)

The Natural Hazard Working Paper Series is issued by the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. It was started in 1968 with Working Paper No. 1 "The Human Ecology of Extreme Geophysical Events" authored by Ian Burton, Robert W. Kates, and Gilbert F. White. There are now 109 papers in the series.

Burton and Kates were students of Gilbert White at the University of Chicago, Department of Geography (1958-62) and subsequently spent periods of time overseas (Burton with the Ford Foundation in Calcutta, and Kates at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania). By 1968, all three of the authors of WP 1 were back in North America (Burton at the University of Toronto, Kates at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and White at Chicago preparing to leave for the University of Colorado). The three of us decided to work together on a research proposal to the National Science Foundation to summarise our collective knowledge of hazards and to develop a set of case studies of natural hazard events across the world. When the proposal was successful, the three of us initiated the Working Paper Series as a means sharing ideas and publishing results among ourselves and our colleagues who joined in the project. WP 1 was largely drawn from the text of the NSF proposal.

The first few papers were published in Toronto and then the place of publication was subsequently moved to the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder. A first task was to develop some methodological guidelines for the case studies and these were published in 1970 as WP 16 "Suggestions for Comparative Field Observations of Natural Hazards". Some 30 case studies were carried out by collaborators across the world partly with the help of the International Geographical Union's Commission on the Environment of which Gilbert White was the Chair and Ian Burton a member.

The National Science Foundation supported projected led to the publication of "The Environment as Hazard" (Burton, Kates, and White (Oxford University Press, 1978) and many of the case studies based in part upon WP 16 were published in "Natural Hazards: Local, National, and Global" (White, G.F., Editor, Oxford University Press, 1974).

Ian Burton in London, England

Ian Burton in London, England (photo copyright Ilan Kelman, 2014).

Commentary on The Blue Cover Reports: Natural Hazards Research Working Papers. Department of Geography, University of Toronto.
James Lewis (5 April 2014)

Having lent to Ilan my Blue Cover Reports, I'm again grateful for the University of Colorado website as a prompt for these few recollections. My safe keeping for 40 years of those I collected should itself be indication of their significance in those early difficult days, and often since.

I'm unsure, but I think some Reports were thrust into my hands during a visit to Toronto and others may have followed by mail as they were published. There it was, seemingly all that was necessary, and from the continent I thought I had left behind six years earlier. Sometimes later came gradual comprehension, interpretation, assimilation and application--often much later.

It's still happening. Recently, I found myself writing "Disasters are not discrete, isolated phenomena...". That came from somewhere else, I cautioned myself. But from where? Certainly before Lewis, 1999; although perhaps Wisner et al., 2004? Yes, in similar wording--but without citation! It could have been either, or each, of "The human ecology of extreme geophysical events", WP1 (Burton et al., 1968) or/and "Natural Hazard in Human Ecological Perspective: Hypotheses and Models", WP14, (Kates, 1970). But it's not, not quite. WP1 discusses the difficulty of defining a "discrete event" and WP14 observes, after a long discussion on modelling, that "many of the real determinants of human behavior lie outside the interface of...natural human systems...". It's still happening, because I'm still searching--thanks to digital accessibility.

Disasters are made to appear to be discrete events by their statistics; numbers of floods or earthquakes in the past ten years, for example; and by the media, here one day and gone another.

Of course, there was much, much more but, overall and as Ilan demonstrates by what he is now doing on all our behalves, the history of our work is too important to forget or ignore, simply because it was a long time ago--like nearly half a century. It is a medium of respect to those who led the way in far off days and in far off lands. It's also a demonstration of how long we (should) have been repeating the gems and how long there has been the opportunity for institutional and practical implementation of changes that, as yet, have insufficiently taken place. Digitisation now means there is no excuse.

James Lewis in Wittenberge, Germany

James Lewis in Wittenberge, Germany (photo copyright Lars Reinhold, Prignitzer, 2011).

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