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A quick-response team of three doctoral students - (left to right) Valerie Marlowe (left) of Houston, Texas, Cynthia Rivas of Los Angeles, California, and Rachel Slotter of Ocean City, Md. - will leave for Houston Monday and spend about a week there, gathering information for the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.
A quick-response team of three doctoral students - (left to right) Valerie Marlowe (left) of Houston, Texas, Cynthia Rivas of Los Angeles, California, and Rachel Slotter of Ocean City, Md. - will leave for Houston Monday and spend about a week there, gathering information for the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.

Disaster research team heads to Houston

Photo by Evan Krape

UD doctoral students will lay groundwork for future study

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 downpours.

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 work.

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 and management.

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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