When Disasters Strike!
Help is on the way . . . or is it?
Large disasters occur with increasing frequency. Most, like last year’s Indian Ocean tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, and the Katrina hurricane, are caused by nature. Each time, governments and institutions including universities rush to help with money, resources, and most importantly promises; promises of funds, supplies, logistics services, and advice. While some funds, supplies, logistic services, and advice are actually delivered, many (and most importantly) solutions usually remain empty promises.
Among the responders are often universities, such as MIT, which announce grandiose plans and make compassionate appeals, form committees or working groups to look into the matter, which after a period of declining member participation in line with reduced public attention usually just goes out of existence or dies.
In other words, universities, like some governments and other organizations, often use disasters more as publicity ploys than a commitment of help.
There is a lot MIT could do in these cases, but it requires more than pious promises; it requires real commitments, including assignment of resources. While some of these will always be provided by well intentioned faculty and others, there is a real need for the Institute as a whole to lead and commit to such endeavors. It would be effort and money well spent, not just in enhancing MIT’s public image, but also in assuring faculty and staff that they are not alone in providing badly needed assistance. We must consider disaster response not just another academic exercise, but an opportunity to make a real difference and/or immediate impact. It is also an important educational and research activity in line with our primary functions.
Working with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security investigation of the Katrina response, I became painfully aware of the inexcusable delays and mismanagement in the delivery of relief by government agencies during and after the disaster. But I also had to admit that academic institutions could have done much more than issue pious announcements, form study committees, and dispatch of some isolated experts to identify issues.
Most of the damage done by the hurricanes as well as other natural disasters was and is preventable. The failure of the levee system in New Orleans, for example, was the result of a combination of bad design, inadequate construction supervision, inept or non-existent maintenance, and lack of effective inspection. Much of this could have been prevented by expert oversight, which academic institutions (as neutral parties) could provide.
Reconstruction plans now seem to advocate much of the same faulty non-storm resisting building approach and urban planning that fails to consider the long-term threats of ever more violent natural disasters. For example, there is an urgent need for a drastic change over from the traditional nailed stick and plywood home construction that is used in most single family dwellings that were flattened by moderately strong winds and not just flood surges, to solid concrete buildings on piled stilts with utilities located not in basements but in attics. There are similarly major opportunities to ameliorate the effects of storm surges by various coastal barriers. In my opinion, academics could and should play a proactive role in developing real solutions and use their knowledge and prestige to influence government agencies, industry, and the public in adopting meaningful disaster prevention methods as part of reconstruction, relief, and future disaster prevention.
The prestige and reputation of MIT should be used to assure that reconstruction and development decisions are not largely based on political convenience, but on technical requirements and socio-economic realities; not on the interests of the contractor and home building industry, but those of the local population and their future.
Universities like MIT, in my opinion, not only carry the responsibility of providing the best possible education to top qualified students and offering unique research and development in science, medicine, engineering, and management, but also the responsibility of leading in guiding government, industry, and the public in the right direction, particularly on issues affecting public safety and security.
Large disaster relief management cannot be left mainly to politicians if the public is to be properly served and protected. There is an urgent need for effective guidance, involvement, and leadership by the intellectual community if the shameful performance of disaster prevention and relief we witnessed in the Katrina episode is not to be repeated. Many colleagues may argue that such involvement deviates from our primary missions of education and research. I beg to differ and contend that this type of activity provides the very core and rationale for our primary missions. If we are not at the forefront of disaster prevention and relief, how do we justify much of our work!