Universities help the recovery from hurricanes’ devastation

Academics worldwide volunteer space in labs and homes, but Puerto Rican relief efforts are slow to get off the ground

October 6, 2017
AUC students at a Uclan welcome event
Source: University of Central Lancashire
Students from the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine meet at the University of Central Lancashire after relocating

Universities across the globe are consolidating plans to determine how best to assist staff and students affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Across the Caribbean, thousands of islanders have been displaced by the category five storms, which devastated the region last month, with basic infrastructure and healthcare a priority for most areas.

But serious damage to university buildings and resources have also prompted sector leaders to raise concerns about an impending crisis in higher education for the region – with academics fearing that displaced students will fail to complete courses and that research will fall behind.

Within hours of the hurricanes’ hitting, academic communities on both sides of the Atlantic began discussing how to provide relief and how to keep research on track.

A strong relationship between the University of Central Lancashire and the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC) gave 700 displaced staff and students the chance to relocate with almost immediate effect.

The students were evacuated from Dutch St Maarten, which was all but destroyed by Hurricane Irma, and flown to the unlikely location of Preston in the UK. They will make use of Uclan classrooms and labs outside normal working hours until AUC facilities are restored to full working order.

The St Maarten residents were airlifted out by the US Air Force and were able to resume their studies at Uclan just nine days afterwards.

Relief efforts for Puerto Rican victims are proving a more difficult task, however.

Nancy Padilla, a postdoctoral associate in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of several academics to use Twitter to exchange contact details and discuss shared workspaces in the aftermath of the disaster.

“We have since been in touch with several professors of the University of Puerto Rico about relocating some scientists to our labs at MIT,” Dr Padilla told Times Higher Education. “They are very grateful and want to identify the cases that can benefit. However, students don’t have [mobile phone] service or access to the internet, so we have yet to receive details of who will be able to come.”

Daniel Colón-Ramos, associate professor of neuroscience at Yale University and co-founder of the science resource network Ciencia Puerto Rico, said that more than 150 labs from around the world had contacted the group within the first week of an appeal to offer designated workspaces for Puerto Rican researchers left without an office.

The joint project by Ciencia and the American Society for Cell Biology allows academics from the US and Canada to volunteer free lab space, office space and even rooms in their own homes for their hurricane-stricken peers.

At least 65 advertisements are posted on the ASCB community website. So far, however, not one of the offers on the site appears to have been taken up.

Broken phone lines and interrupted internet connections on Puerto Rico will account for some of the difficulties in achieving communications. But ASCB officials also suggested that, for academics who have lost everything, working life may take longer to return to.

“We strongly suspect that the recovery just hasn’t reached that level yet; families and homes are taking priority,” a spokesman added.


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