Academic eyes turn to Katrina's fallout

September 30, 2005

University researchers are joining relief workers and clean-up crews in New Orleans. They are aiming to study aspects of the disaster that emptied the city, from the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina to the structural vulnerabilities of coastal homes.

"Our goal was to go as soon as possible to collect the perishable data before things get moved around and buildings get torn down," said Gilberto Mosqueda, a professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. He led a team of academics to the Gulf Coast to study how earthquake engineering expertise could help make structures resistant to wind.

The American Sociological Association is assembling a team of academics to look at disaster preparedness and the hurricane's aftermath. The University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center has gathered researchers and graduate students to visit the New Orleans area and Houston, where many of the evacuees were initially taken, to consider issues including warnings, evacuation, shelter and looting.

Rick Wilson, chairman of political science at Rice University in Houston, is studying evacuees in behavioural experiments that postulate that stories of looting and rapes reported in Katrina's wake were exaggerated. "My sense is that's an unusual way to think of how people respond in a crisis. I think most evacuees behaved differently than was painted in news reports," he said.

Birmingham-Southern College political science professor Vincent Gawronski and Richard Olson of Florida International University are studying media coverage of the hurricane and are collecting 30 days' worth of newspaper stories.

At San Diego State University, geological sciences professor Eric Frost linked before-and-after satellite images to help relief and reconstruction agencies pinpoint the worst damage.

Before the hurricane, Gregory Button, a University of Michigan health education lecturer, had been studying New Orleans' vulnerability to coastal storms. Mr Button is reassembling his team to return to the city.

Much of the field work was already wrapped up when Hurricane Rita hit and most evacuees had been placed in semi-permanent housing.

John Barnshaw, of Delaware's Disaster Research Center, finished his research in Houston five days before Rita. Arrangements were made for his colleagues in Louisiana to be evacuated but the need did not arise.

Rice's Professor Wilson had wrapped up his first round of data collection on evacuees a week before Rita arrived, and had hoped to have an article with full data analysis completed. But he was forced to leave Houston. He has since expanded his research to look at the issue of how people decide to leave or stay when a disaster is imminent.

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