December 2005 -

In mid-September, Brooks sent the atlas to Mississippi with a delegation from the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which had been asked to help do damage assessment. The architects spent a week posting color-coded placards on public buildings—green, yellow or red, depending on the probable safety of each structure. Rachel Minnery, a member of the group, says that the atlas’s wind map was particularly useful. “You could definitely see Katrina’s path, and which buildings were damaged and which were not,” she says. “I think there’s a lot to be learned from what GIS has to offer.”

While she was down there, Minnery says, she spent more time than she would have liked in her car, studying street maps on her laptop. Told of the fieldworker-friendly device that Randy Kemp hopes to design, she suggested an additional feature. “A compass would’ve been extremely helpful,” she says. “Because after a hurricane, you don’t have street signs, and your landmarks are half-destroyed. Even people that were familiar with the area had a really hard time navigating.”

In the coming months, Brooks and his volunteers will also be furnishing maps to teams of researchers from throughout the University—the recipients of small grants from the National Science Foundation. Immediately after Katrina, the foundation set aside some money for hurricane-related research to quickly capture valuable “ephemeral data.” The guidelines made it clear that only multidisciplinary proposals would be considered.

Mark Haselkorn

Professor Mark Haselkorn. Photo by Mary Levin.

Haselkorn saw this as an opportunity for the new humanitarian-relief program and convened two brainstorming sessions in early September. He also set up a list serve to help bring research teams together. Professors began posting their calls for collaborators; some simply offered their services: “I would be interested in working with you to any degree possible on the ethical, legal and health policy issues.” “My area of expertise is affordable housing policy in the U.S.” “My individual research interest is in coastal and nearshore ecosystem restoration.”

What emerged was a package of interrelated proposals covering everything from those half-submerged school buses to disease risk to the development of hurricane-resistant housing to issues of race, safety and politics.

“It’s just amazing,” says Sanjeev Khagram, the newly appointed director of the Lindenberg Center, “to think that we have a proposal with the director of the civil engineering department as the lead principal investigator and a social work junior faculty member as one of the team. I mean, that’s just phenomenal.”

The University of Washington, says Khagram, isn’t the only place where academics are beginning to take disaster relief seriously. But it may be the only place where they’re approaching it so cooperatively. And that’s vital, he says, because humanitarian crises “are by their very nature interdisciplinary.”

“The research problem” posed by a tsunami or a Katrina, says Haselkorn, “is that data in isolation, data from a single perspective, are inherently flawed. Because it’s such an interdependent system. It doesn’t matter where you approach it from. As soon as you go in, you run into everything else.”

He recalls the first time he and an engineering colleague met with Elaine Chang at the Evans School to discuss humanitarian relief. “It was just this instant realization,” he says, “on everyone’s part: ‘Of course, you need these multiple perspectives. Of course you can’t do this alone.’”

Eric McHenry is the associate editor of Columns.

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Sidebar: Higher GROUND - Charmain Chatman - Katrina affected UW exchange student.