A disastrous book collection
Photos courtesy of Logan Gerber-Chavez and iStock January 28, 2022
Doctoral student’s collection of disaster books reflects lifelong journey of learning
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the winners of the 2021 third annual Seth Trotter Book Collecting Contest, sponsored by the Friends of the University of Delaware Library.
Her parents said it wasn’t possible. Her science teacher agreed. Yet a week later, then-7-year-old Logan Gerber-Chavez watched in anxious horror as a tornado descended over downtown Salt Lake City while she was at recess. The next day, Gerber-Chavez checked out every book on weather that she could find in the library, kickstarting a lifelong quest for knowledge and an unyielding interest in weather.
Growing up, she moved often. While that allowed her to experience a wide variety of weather, it made it difficult to start a book collection of her own. Still Gerber-Chavez kept reading and learning, borrowing book after book from her local libraries.
Now a fourth-year doctoral student in the Disaster Science and Management Program at the University of Delaware's Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, Gerber-Chavez has settled in Delaware long enough to finally build a collection of her own — Once Upon a Tornado: A Disaster Book Collection.
It’s a robust collection you won’t find replicated in your local Barnes and Noble.
“There’s not a specific place to find them,” Gerber-Chavez said with a laugh. “I can’t just walk in and say, ‘Let me go find disaster books!’ ” Instead, Gerber-Chavez scours bookstores whenever she travels to find titles that speak to the theme of disasters, pulling together an impressive array of books.
Among the more than 80 titles in Gerber-Chavez’s collection, you’ll find dystopian fiction, memoirs, textbooks and reference books, case studies and picture books designed to teach children about disasters. These books recount stories of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, mining spills, climate change, toxic chemical exposure, pandemics and more. They share survivor stories and provide insights on emergency management, environmental justice and disaster response.
It is a collection defined and expanded by Gerber-Chavez’s experiences, education and natural curiosity.
In the Disaster Education Program, Gerber-Chavez specifically studies compound disasters — when more than one disaster happens at a time. Prior to this program, she had focused on hard sciences, but with her doctorate, she wants to see where her studies impact people. Her aim is to help those in need deal with the emergency situations they find themselves in.
This desire to be a part of real, on-the-ground change was partially motivated by the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Germany, which Gerber-Chavez attended as a student delegate. There, she realized things need to happen at the local level if high-level plans to respond to and prevent disasters, like climate change, are to come to fruition.
“We can talk until we’re blue in the face, but there are some actual things that need to happen at the local level and will take some work to do,” Gerber-Chavez said.
But that was hardly her only take-away from the experience. Countries and companies attending the meeting share what they are working on to combat climate change. At several of their displays, Gerber-Chavez found picture books that explained these concepts for children. The handful of books from Pacific Island nations and European countries she received inspired her to continue collecting children’s books.
This is how Gerber-Chavez’s collection grows. She seeks out books that not only feed her personal curiosities, but those that help her better understand how to support people in need when disaster strikes.
Take, for instance, the disaster-specific memoirs in her collection. In her day-to-day research, she often discusses all-hazard planning, the idea that whatever needs to be done following a disaster — restoring power, getting people back into their homes, etc. — is largely the same regardless of the type of disaster. From the memoirs in her collection, Gerber-Chavez can step beyond her studies and delve deeper into each disaster. She can learn about the specific responses and complications that occurred, and she can learn from the unique lived experiences of disaster survivors. With this information, she can better understand regional, cultural and other individualized instances that could impact emergency management. She can also ask questions that lead her to new topics and book recommendations.
Gerber-Chavez reads each book in her collection, broadening her perspective with each page. “In grad school, you get so focused on something, and you don’t really ever leave that …,” she said. “My collection is a way for me to be more aware of what’s happening in other parts of the field or even in other fields of study, because there are so many overlapping and interdisciplinary parts of disasters.”
The personal experiences she has with disasters have also influenced her studies and her collection. Gerber-Chavez has helped two of her best friends in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which hammered the Gulf Coast. She also lived on the Navajo and Ute Tribe Reservations in the Four Corners — the intersection of the boundaries of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — during the Gold King Mine Spill, and was able to help families working on their harvests who had to deal with the impact of contaminated water.
“I’ve been in [disasters] in different contexts, and I’ve been able to see those impacts and experience them in different ways,” Gerber-Chavez said. “That has changed some of my perspectives on how I look at disaster.”
What began as an interest to learn more about tornadoes has turned into a lifelong journey for Gerber-Chavez, supported by education, personal experience and a book collection that reflects the many unique threads of her path so far.
Guided by that same instinct from when she was seven and in search of answers for herself, she is determined to help others. After receiving her doctorate, she said she hopes to work with a local government that is focused on climate-related disasters and how they can support these marginalized communities.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading about disasters for 20 years, it’s that hazards are unavoidable, but we can make individual and societal decisions to prevent disasters,” Gerber-Chavez said. “And that makes all the difference.”
Seth Trotter Book Collecting Contest
Logan Gerber-Chavez is one of three winners of the Friends of the University of Delaware Library’s 2021 Seth Trotter Book Collecting Contest. The other winners are Katrina Anderson and Margaret O’Neill. The Friends created the contest to encourage reading and research, the creation of personal libraries, and an appreciation of printed or illustrated works for pleasure and scholarship among UD undergraduate and graduate students. Friends of the University of Delaware Library provides fundraising support for UD's Library, Museums and Press.