Studying disastersStudying disasters in order to prepare for them

Published 20 July 2011

Disaster Research Center scientists study the world’s worst disasters in hopes of saving more lives in the future; one of the center’s experts says that disaster planning is constantly changing: “As we have a combination of new threats that face us — natural and technological — as we have changes in climate, as we have changes in population density, in where people are living, people are put at risk and new issues are created”

At the site of a terrorist attack, an earthquake, or a tsunami, emergency responders are focused on search and rescue, and saving lives.

Some disaster sites provide an opportunity for experts with different skills than the police, firefighters, and aid organizations that are first on the scene.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), sociologist Tricia Wachtendorf and teams from the Disaster Research Center (DRC) go to devastated locations to learn more about how lives may be saved in the future.

The DRC started in 1963 at the Ohio State University, and moved in the mid-1980s to the University of Delaware in Newark.

We try to learn from disasters, not only to make a contribution to science, but also to try to take our findings and find out how we can apply that to better emergency management practice more generally,” says Wachtendorf.

We also have a very strong educational component,” she adds. “We involve graduate and undergraduate students in all of our research.”

A national Science Foundation release reports that Wachtendorf spent several weeks near ground zero after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. She spent time in command centers, watching how critical decisions unfolded.

Wachtendorf says DRC had a good working relationship with New York City emergency personnel before the terrorist attacks and this allowed the center important access even in the chaos.

They lost friends, they lost family members, and they were very willing to have us shadow them, answer questions, and to actually say, ‘Come here, you need to hear this, you need to learn from this,’ and tell us what’s going right and what’s going wrong,” says Wachtendorf.

Over the years, DRC research has recommended better ways to recover and handle human remains, streamline accounting of donations and supplies, and ways for small businesses to quickly reopen after a disaster. Through outreach to practitioners, many of their recommendations find their way into practice.

One specific study of the 9/11 response focused on the evacuation of half a million people from lower Manhattan the day of the attacks, including a spontaneous and successful effort by tug, ferry, dinner cruise and sightseeing boats. DRC director James Kendra had a major part in that research.

The mariners have a very particular culture and having worked in that environment in different kinds of ships, I think it was very helpful for us in being able to speak their language,” says Kendra, who, in addition to a doctorate in