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Katrina in the classroom: Professors seize teachable moment

By : By Rachel Coker

Binghamton faculty members in an array of disciplines have incorporated Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath into class discussions.

Students in classes focused on subjects such as sociology, eco-nomics, public policy, water management and international health discuss what can be learned from the disaster on a regular basis. David Campbell, assistant professor in the Master of Public Administration program, said the disaster provides an opportunity to discuss how nonprofits and governments can overcome chal-lenges like the ones presented by Katrina. The role of government is revealed every day in numerous ways, he said, but it’s not always so easily noticed.

He gave his students a New York Times essay by David Brooks that addressed the obvious disconnect between public policy and the public. “The question I asked the class,” Campbell said, “is: ‘How do you make that bridge?’”

Campbell, who teaches Introduction to Public Administration and Management as well as Introduction to Policy Analysis, said his students are interested in these issues, but they feel far removed from having to make decisions about public policy. It’s vital that they see the field is not about abstractions, but rather about people, he said.

He plans to organize a forum in October focusing on Katrina and the lessons it can teach government and nonprofit groups about how to provide high quality public service.

Burrell Montz, professor of geography and environmental studies, said Katrina has changed her approach to teaching Water Resources Planning and Management.

“I never would have put such a focus on engineering so early in the course if it weren’t for Katrina,” Montz said.

The class focuses on how water is managed and why. Students consider the socioeconomics of water management as well as issues of access. Uncertainty, climate change and scientific principles of water are also addressed.

This hurricane allows students to see that while officials and engineers plan for contingencies, there will always be unknowable factors, she said. Louisiana actually had a strong emergency management plan, but a terrible mix of bad luck and little help made that irrelevant. While the hurricane itself should have been expected, its impact is unprece dented, she said.

Montz, a hazards researcher who got interested in the field after her parents suffered through the effects of Hurricane Agnes in 1972, said she tries not to over emphasize Katrina in class. But she’s fascinated by the opportunities many Mississippi and Louisiana communities will have to start over essentially from scratch.

She submitted two grant proposals related to Katrina last week. One related to land use decisions made over time; the other to follow evacuees who went to Tampa, Fla., to see how their economic and emotional situations evolve.

Professor William Martin devoted an entire session of his Introduction to Sociology class to Katrina’s aftermath. “It really is a major not natural but social disaster,” he said. Martin addressed the region’s history, its social structure, poverty, segregation and media coverage in that discussion and has mentioned Katrina in subsequent lectures.

“This is a moment when the invisible became visible,” said Martin, who noted there has been unusually open debate about poverty and race and that that national discussion has had some unexpected political implications.

Lecturer Kenny Christianson agrees the storm revealed the way Americans avoid dealing with poverty at home.

“A lot of these people are hidden,” he said. “We really got a good sense of what poverty can look like in our country.”

Christianson has found several ways to talk about the hurricane in his Principles of Macroeconomics class. For instance, he used the example of troops in Iraq not being available to help with the recovery effort when discussing opportunity cost. Energy costs have been another obvious way for economics students to observe the effects of Katrina, he said.

Physical anthropologist Chris Reiber initially expected to address Katrina extensively in her class on International Health, but there’s not much concrete public health data available yet.

Instead, she said, her graduate students have talked about the ramifi-cations of the storm in more theoretical ways: How do you staff a hospital in that situation? What are the long-range health effects?

Reiber is also interested in the wider implications for the U.S. population. For example, she said, bacterial and viral strains of diseases may take unanticipated turns following the crisis. “Infectious agents evolve much faster than we do,” Reiber noted. “These are the beginnings of potentially epidemic diseases.” Several faculty members said Katrina is unprecedented in ways that make it a fascinating subject for them and for many of their students.

Montz said the storm revealed the obvious differences in impact between haves and havenots and showed an unprecedented failure in federal disaster response. It’s also an unusual com-bination of natural and technological disasters, she said. Reiber said she was stunned both by the slowness of the response and the lack of public health data. She noted that after the Asian tsunamis there were daily updates about diseases and social issues related to health, and she wonders why U.S. officials aren’t communicating more effectively. Waterborne and mosquito-borne diseases must be a problem in the disaster zone, she said, but she hasn’t seen statistics about that yet.

“There seems to be a vacuum of information,” she said. Reiber articulated a point made by several faculty members. “We don’t want to see these things happen in the world,” she said, “but when they do, I think they’re great examples for our students.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08