Valerie Marlowe had some nervous days in the past week as Hurricane Harvey bore down on her hometown -- Houston.
Her family members are safe, but some were among the thousands
evacuated by boat from their homes as the storm sent days of punishing
Now the University of Delaware doctoral student will head home to
bring her studies and training to bear on the city she loves as part of a
quick-response team from the University's Disaster Research Center.
"This is really personal for me, " said Marlowe, pursuing a doctorate
in UD's disaster science and management program. "I grew up on the Gulf
Coast and that has been important to me and my formation as a person."
She has worked in the past with the American Red Cross -- her first
deployment was during Hurricane Katrina -- so she knows that kind of
This work has much different objectives -- contributing to the
research that distinguishes the Disaster Research Center as a premier
source of research-backed data and a trusted partner in disaster science
Joining Marlowe on this deployment are two other doctoral students in
the same program - Cynthia Rivas of Los Angeles and Rachel Slotter of
Ocean City, Maryland.
They will spend about a week in the Houston area, doing brief
interviews, visiting shelters, evaluating needs and establishing
contacts for future study.
The DRC, under the direction of Professors James Kendra and Tricia
Wachtendorf, has a trove of disaster data, gathered and analyzed since
its founding in 1963 at Ohio State University. The center moved its
headquarters to UD in 1985 and maintains the nation's most comprehensive
library of disaster-related research.
DRC has significant expertise in disaster evacuation -- how various
decisions have played out in the past, how people make decisions in such
crises -- and has consulted with many federal, state and local
officials as such plans are made and evaluated.
A frequent question as Hurricane Harvey bore down on Texas was:
Should the mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city have called for
mandatory evacuation? The mayor did not do so and explained his reasons
forcefully, pointing to previous evacuation disasters and the deaths
that resulted when people were trapped in cars as hurricane-force winds
and waves reached them.
That evacuation question will be part of every review of the situation, but DRC is after much more.
"It's understandable that journalists want a judgment call,"
Wachtendorf said, "but we want to get all the information. We know the
difficulty of calling an evacuation order, the difficulty of getting
that many people out of the area. We also know the importance of getting
vulnerable members of the community out."
This quick-response team will lay the groundwork for subsequent
research teams, whose plans will draw on what this team finds and what
needs to happen onsite.
"There's a strong reconnaissance aspect to this," Kendra said.
"They'll look at the challenges people are facing, the context for early
decisions, what organizations are in the field, when they arrived, when
will they leave, emerging groups, the role of volunteers and non-profit
organizations, statistics on the extent and magnitude of response
activities -- and all of this can be the basis for later projects."
The work is not an investigation of the mayor, not a fault-finding
expedition and not meant to render judgment or cast blame, he said.
That's not to say researchers won't form opinions, but those opinions
won't be based on knee-jerk responses or incidentals.
"We do a lot of how and why," Wachtendorf said. "How was that
decision made -- and why? That has implications for how other cities
could/should be thinking of responding in the future."
Alumni of UD's programs in disaster education are in many areas of disaster management now, she said.
One is deployed with FEMA, responding to situations created by
Hurricane Harvey. Another is working with the American Red Cross in
response to the hurricane. Another works in emergency management in
Berkeley, California, which has seen recent violent conflict similar to
that in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Marlowe and Slotter deployed to Charlottesville about 10 days after
the violence and unrest there. They studied the operation of a Family
Assistance Center at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Library
that was activated after the car attack.
The intense media coverage of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath
provides opportunity for new instruction, Wachtendorf said. She and the
undergraduates in her class on disaster vulnerability will spend
considerable time discussing events as they unfold, including attention
to issues that are not getting much media coverage.
Questions about disaster response and management have many layers, some of which are not easy to reach.
DRC's Joseph Trainor, associate professor in UD's School of Public
Policy and Administration, does a lot of research on how people make
decisions and what influences their choices.
More than 22 percent of Houston's 2.3 million residents live in
poverty, he said, and evacuation for them is often a financial decision.
Do they have a car? Money for gas? Do they have somewhere to go and the
money to cover expenses there? What if they evacuate but the disaster
doesn't materialize as predicted and their employer expects them to show
up for work?
"The risk is not evenly distributed," he said, "and many complicated
factors go into household decisions for these types of events."
It's important to understand the context and the information they had
to work with -- and the same goes for elected officials and other
leaders, he said.
"The bigger question is about the choices made in prior decades that created the vulnerabilities revealed here," he said.
The answer to that requires more research and would also require
local communities and governments to reflect on how they manage the risk
of natural hazards.
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Article by Beth Miller; photo by Evan Krape