Campus & Community

Teach-in seeks lessons from disaster

5 min read

Event examines disaster from different perspectives

At a teach-in about disaster response and prevention at the Askwith Forum, Michael Van Rooyen (from left), Daniel Curran, and David Henderson listen to audience questions. (Staff photos Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Hurricane Katrina exposed the United States’ inability to care for its most vulnerable citizens, abandoning them to a disaster policy that approximated “survival of the fittest,” international disaster experts said Friday (Sept. 30).

Michael Van Rooyen, lecturer on medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, said that though the government’s primary role in disasters is to protect its population, the evacuation plan emphasized self-help.

That meant the plan essentially ignored society’s most vulnerable: the very young, the very old, pregnant women, and those who are sick or disabled.

“Authorities’ response to Katrina ignored large numbers of people who were vulnerable and so passively condoned survival of the fittest – and this can’t be the criteria of our response,” Van Rooyen said.

Jennifer Leaning moderated the session.

Van Rooyen was part of a Friday afternoon “teach-in” on the lessons to be learned from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The event, sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative with support from the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, took place at the Askwith Forum in Longfellow Hall.

Professor of the Practice of International Health Jennifer Leaning moderated the event. Leaning said the event was designed as a “teach-in” with the expectation that it would begin a larger discussion of the lessons to be learned from the disaster.

Related links:
University opens heart (and doors) in the wake of devastating Katrina
Displaced students make a home at Harvard
Diaries of a disaster
Learn more about what is happening at Harvard regarding the aftermath of Katrina

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“We are trying to start a discussion of a topic of serious importance in a process that will go far beyond today,” Leaning said.

The teach-in consisted of three panels of experts discussing the disaster from the perspective of international disasters, domestic disaster response, and human rights.

Van Rooyen said that another problem with the Katrina response was a failure to manage the media properly, to ensure that the message getting out to those affected was useful and without the inflammatory rhetoric used by both New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

“What separates us from unstable or less developed countries or nations is our ability to provide for all of our citizens,” Van Rooyen said. “Katrina exposed our inability to care for our most vulnerable.”

Daniel Curran, director of Harvard Business School’s Humanitarian Leadership Program, said it’s important to remember that individual people, not government programs, are the biggest agents for change. Curran said he believes that the current emphasis on a centrally coordinated recovery from Katrina is the wrong approach.

The scope of the disaster ensures there will be plenty of rebuilding dollars distributed, but Curran recommended that the money be distributed to local agencies and put into the hands of individuals who will do the actual rebuilding as quickly as possible.

“The majority of relief actors are always local,” Curran said. “I think what a government agency does best is to provide information, so citizen actors can act on that information.”

Curran said the central government should focus on things that need central authority, such as rebuilding roads and electrical systems.

“What needs to happen in the recovery is a clearer combination of decentralized action and central coordination,” Curran said. “The real answer is to find small solutions everywhere.”

David Henderson, assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the mental health aspect of recovery was neglected in the initial response. Though some shelters had mental health professionals on staff, many smaller shelters did not.

After a disaster of such magnitude, Henderson said, mental health workers are needed as part of the first-line response in order to both help those with pre-existing mental health issues and those suffering from the effects of the disaster. People trapped for days on roofs, losing loved ones, and experiencing other trauma could benefit from mental health care, Henderson said.

“In disaster response, mental health is often marginalized, it’s an afterthought,” Henderson said. “Yet for societies to recover, you have to address mental health needs, those of people under care, but also from the impact of the disaster on the general population.”

Leslie Gerwin, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, lived in New Orleans for 22 years. She said New Orleans was a disaster planner’s nightmare, because, according to surveys conducted in the Houston shelter of those who stayed behind, most did because they didn’t think the storm would be that bad.

Gerwin said she’s pessimistic about New Orleans’ future, saying she thought that many people would opt to start over elsewhere.

“I’m not optimistic about the future of my city,” Gerwin said.