By Karen Kaplan
…Scientists have been studying disasters for more than a century.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., sponsored small fact-finding missions in the aftermath of earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters in the 1800s.
The federal government's first large-scale effort to understand the causes and consequences of an earthquake came after the San Francisco quake of 1906, said Marc Rothenberg, the historian for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.
When Congress established the foundation in 1950, it took on primary responsibility for funding studies of U.S. quakes and other natural disasters. The government's investment varies based on events, but most initial grants are in the range of $10,000 to $50,000. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, the foundation handed out more than $5 million for about 70 data-collection projects, said Dennis Wenger, the agency's program director in charge of disaster research funding.
The National Institutes of Health has also gotten into the act, sponsoring research on mental illnesses that often arise after disasters.
"It gives us an opportunity to learn something about the risk for psychopathology that can't be studied in other contexts," said Farris Tuma, chief of the Traumatic Stress Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health.
After four major hurricanes hit Florida in 2004, scientists studied survivors' medical records and gathered blood samples to tease out the role of specific genes in causing PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts.
"You have this more level playing field of vulnerability, which gives us a better way of trying to identify what's protective for people and what puts people more at risk," Tuma said.
The first researchers began arriving in Haiti about a week after the Jan. 12 quake…