IN-story Disaster

Quakes, Tornadoes, and Floods, Oh My!

by Lauren Owens

Horizon Reporter

Small rocks and vials filled with volcanic ash line the windowsill of Doug McKeever’s office at Whatcom Community College. McKeever certainly has plenty of experience, as he has been teaching different forms of environmental science for just shy of 40 years.

With an unusually long waiting list, “Natural Disasters” is often a sought after class McKeever teaches. The eye-catching course title and fascinating subject matter make it a popular choice for Whatcom students. Formerly known as “Environmental Hazards,” this five-credit class satisfies a science lab requirement, a global requirement, and a sustainability requirement.


Besides learning about volcanic eruptions, pounding avalanches, and whirling tornadoes, McKeever said “Natural Disasters” students will learn how to be part of a smarter generation when it comes to living with the environment, from how to react to environmental catastrophes to how to live gracefully with their threat through understanding scientific studies.

In one class project, students will concentrate on Mercer Creek and the Green River in Washington. Students will gather historical documentation of the rivers. The class will discuss how and why the river has changed over the years.

While visiting a local flood area on one of McKeever’s field trips, the class will address questions such as, “What has been done to fix or prevent this natural disaster?  What hasn’t been done?” The “Natural Disasters” class will discuss the effects of flood controlling through levies and dams; which then raises another question. Where is the right place to build in a flood plain area, if at all?

Students will also participate in online studies and lab work such as graphing the magnitude of an earthquake and measuring volcanoes and their hazards.

McKeever explained that understanding the physical phenomena, such as why we get tornadoes in the spring, or what has to happen to make a hurricane, will lead to better predictability of a disaster and better emergency responses. “What can happen will happen,” says Smith’s Law; something McKeveer learned from a climatologist.

In McKeever’s classroom, large maps wallpaper its interior and students trickle in with plenty of time to spare.  Nathan Hawkins, who has taken two other classes taught by McKeever, said this is by far his favorite and most engaging class. “It’s life empowering and very useful,” he said. Hawkins said McKeever’s passion and knowledge of the subject have influenced him to think about a major in geology.

“Natural Disasters” is a compelling mixture of excitement, mathematics, and science.  “What are the two biggest problems in the world?”  McKeever asks. “Ignorance and apathy. People saying, I don’t know and I don’t care.  However, you can always fix the ignorance.”


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