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Environmental experts at DePaul University offer insight on Hurricane Harvey

Scholars available to discuss urban ecosystems, rhetoric of climate change

Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey approaches Texas before landfall. Experts from DePaul University are available to discuss environmental science and communications issues related to the disaster. (Image by U.S. Navy)
CHICAGO — As Americans absorb the news of suffering and destruction in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many have questions about the roles of climate change, urbanization and flawed communication in contributing to the disaster. Faculty experts from DePaul University are available to discuss the roles of environmental science, disaster response, and communication in causing and responding to natural disasters. Experts include:

Nezih Altay, Associate Professor of Management, Driehaus College of Business. Altay’s research focuses on the four stages of disaster management — mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery — and investigates effective ways of managing humanitarian relief supply chains. “To ensure a swift response, FEMA, Red Cross and large retailers pre-positioned inventory in Texas and Louisiana before even Harvey made landfall. But the vast reach of flooding has crippled transportation lines and all that prepositioned stock is probably stuck somewhere” said Altay. He is also interested in how disasters impact supply chains and business in general. “Depending on how much inventory chemical companies sit on, the ripple effect of a large disruption like Harvey can linger for a long time in the supply chain,” said Altay. “And the impact on small businesses can be devastating. It will range from rebuilding a store to relocating completely. After Hurricane Katrina, some small businesses had to move simply because their customers never came back,” added Altay. “Disasters like Harvey are like big reset buttons for business, some get erased and some see opportunity for growth.” He can be reached at​ or 312-362-8313.

Mark Potosnak, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, College of Science and Health. Potosnak’s research focuses on interactions between the terrestrial biosphere and the atmosphere. Specifically, he studies how trace gas emissions from plants affect atmospheric chemistry and how climate change will impact this interaction in the future. “The extraordinary rains from Hurricane Harvey have tragically caused loss of life and also extreme disruption to millions of people in the Houston area and beyond,” said Potosnak. “This drives home how vulnerable our society is to extreme weather events. With climate change expected to make extreme weather even more severe, the suffering in Houston should be heard as a call for decisive action that takes advantage of clean and sustainable energy sources.” He can be reached at or 773-325-7867.

Barb Willard, Associate Professor of Communication, College of Communication. Willard’s background is in environmental communication. Her research examines how the rhetoric of popular culture and environmental rhetoric intersect, informing and influencing cultural practice. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Willard can discuss how scientists and others can most effectively communicate about the environmental issues related to the disaster. “At what point do climate scientists start to make more definitive statements about these extreme weather events so the general public will also make the connection, and therefore urge Congress to take action?” asked Willard. “There is a particular way of speaking about probability in scientific terms that does not translate well to the general public. It makes the science appear to be uncertain and climate skeptics play up on this uncertainty.” Willard added, “I think the warming ocean and warming planet caused by humans is partially contributing to the devastating flooding caused by Harvey. And, I imagine in the coming days we will start having a national conversation about this.” She can be reached at or 312-362-7468. 

James Montgomery, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, College of Science and Health. Montgomery grew up in north suburban Houston and researches urban ecology and sustainability. He can discuss the intersections of climate change, natural disaster and urbanization. “The misery being faced by Houstonians is in part the product of a rare 500-year flood occurring in a low-lying region of very flat terrain that has seen massive urbanization or sprawl in the past several decades,” said Montgomery. “Urbanization has increased the acreage of impervious surface that does not allow for the infiltration of stormwater. As a result, stormwater runs off into a network of creeks, bayous and flood control reservoirs. When the storage capacity of creeks and bayous is exceeded, water overtops the banks and flows where it wants,” he said.

“Sustainability directly implies that we must live within our means — in this case, within the constraints of our ecosystems. The world is becoming increasingly urbanized, and climate change may be a driver in this process. Rampant urbanization is stretching the ability of many cities in the developing world to provide basic services such as clean water, sanitation and food. Understanding the impacts of global climate change on urban society requires fundamental research into and understanding of urban ecology,” said Montgomery. He can be reached at or 773-325-2771.

Jill Hopke, Assistant Professor of Journalism, College of Communication. Hopke’s research focuses on participatory and networked uses of emerging digital and mobile media platforms, with an emphasis on the ways in which environmental activists use these tools. "It is hard for us as individuals to make sense of climate impacts in our daily lives. With disasters like Hurricane Harvey, we tend to see an increase in media interest in covering climate change, in the context of extreme weather events. How individuals perceive climate change is based in worldviews and values,” she said. Hopke can explain how to different communications approaches work to engage audiences to address climate change. She can be reached at or 312-362-7641.


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