Studying disasters in order to prepare for them

they were able to get donated to them. They made an arrangement that those boats became the community boats, so they took turns sharing the catch. It was a way to make sure everybody was able to get back in the sea and begin working again,” she says.

Wachtendorf also found inequality in the distribution of resources following some disasters. Often, she says, it is simply the result of access.” Sometimes we also end up seeing that there are particular areas that get a lot of media attention. They are sometimes the areas that are easy to get into.

They might have areas for journalists. And we hear a lot about those communities. Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is, aid flows to those communities and doesn’t always reach neighboring communities that are equally impacted, but don’t make it on TV,” she explains.

Field study is important for graduate students at the DRC. Rochelle Brittingham is a doctoral student in the School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware. She has studied evacuation and sheltering projects in North Carolina. She’s also doing field work in Japan, following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster there.

After such a large-scale disaster in Japan, we want to see, what did the Japanese government do, were non-governmental organizations involved, basically how did it all work? We’re going to go and see if there are any answers there,” says Brittingham.

Lucia Velotti is also a doctoral student in the School of Public Policy and Administration. She says an understanding of local cultures is critical when spending time in a disaster zone. She did research in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Listening is very, very important and so is listening to different perspectives. You need to have the whole picture. You need to try to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. When I went to Haiti, we interviewed people from UN agencies. We also talked to non-governmental organizations and grassroots community leaders. We really wanted to understand different perspectives,” says Velotti.

DRC’s work involves input from many social and physical scientists. Civil engineer Rachel Davidson finds the collaboration critical.

If you are looking from only one disciplinary domain, you can’t see the big picture,” says Davidson, who does modeling and analysis of building codes and evacuation strategies.

Speaking of her social science colleagues, she says, “I’ve learned a lot from them. In a way they kind of keep us honest. Because (in) developing engineering models, sometimes we’re tempted to make assumptions about how the world works. And they’ll often tell us, ‘No, that’s not actually how people make decisions.’ Or ‘No, that’s not how people actually behave’. And so, we want to try to work together to develop better models and better understanding to improve the decision making in the long run. And hopefully, they’ve learned something from us as well.”

Wachtendorf says compared to fifty years ago, there has been a tremendous emphasis on emergency management planning in the United States. Both federal agencies like FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and state and local emergency managers have invested in facilities and planning.

She also notes 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. It’s never a stagnant field. So something that we might know back in the 1960s, we need to learn again in the 1980s to see how much of that is still relevant, and what has changed. (It’s) the same thing now as we look back at that historical research, how do we need to adapt our plans in terms of political context or economic context?” says Wachtendorf.