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The Role of Colleges in Disaster Relief

Why and how institutions should be more involved
University Business, Nov 2009

WHEN THE CEDAR RIVER CRESTED at over 19 feet in June 2008, hundreds of residents of Waverly, Iowa, were forced to evacuate their homes and seek shelter. The city, facing the most devastating natural disaster in the county’s history, found much needed support and assistance from Wartburg College.

Sustaining only minor damage to campus, the college partnered with the American Red Cross to host the organization’s disaster assistance center and shelter more than 50 displaced people for nearly a month. The college community responded with more than 15,000 hours of volunteer service, also contributing financially to fundraisers and benefit concerts. The college’s Center for Community Engagement coordinated volunteer efforts and provided leadership in the creation and operation of the long-term community recovery coalition.

Unfortunately, our college’s experience with natural disasters is far from unique. As we’ve seen in places like North Dakota, California, and Minnesota, natural disasters are a reality for which all campuses need to be prepared.

Disaster recovery requires local partners that are organized, agile, responsive, and resourceful.

Yet until recently, preparation for most colleges has meant identifying ways they could secure themselves in response to disaster. While necessary, that is not enough. Colleges need to play a more significant role in the process of communitywide disaster preparedness and recovery. We have a particular set of strengths and assets that are well suited to assist, and sometimes lead, the disaster preparedness and relief processes. This engagement also is an opportunity for our students to participate and learn.

Those in the business of disaster response have well-defined roles in the recovery process. For example, after our local first responders and the American Red Cross provided immediate security and relief, national disaster response organizations quickly came to our aid. Nechama, the Jewish community’s disaster response organization, coordinated and assisted with the cleanup process. Lutheran Disaster Response provided a pool of regional and national volunteers. The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee conducted door-to-door assessments that estimated the unmet needs of those in our community.

While these organizations were providing the hands to get the work done in our community, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and our local disaster responders helped prepare for the lengthy road of recovery ahead.

The effectiveness of the recovery process hinges on one factor?quality, organized, local partners. Who can access local volunteers? Where are central meeting locations? Who are the leaders in the community, and who can bring them together? Who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to practices of justice? Who has the technical expertise to create systems for communication and coordination?

The disaster recovery process requires local partners that are organized, agile, responsive, and resourceful. Although as college administrators and faculty we don’t often associate ourselves or our institutions with adjectives like these, that is just the type of leadership we can provide.

Institutions of higher education are uniquely situated to respond with sustained agility, empathy, and organizational capacity. We have access to technical experts, willing volunteers, and justice-driven leaders who can be an anchor in the recovery process, as well as access to the equipment, physical space, and necessary technology.

While individual situations determine the specific response to be taken, campus leaders can be better prepared for disaster recovery by taking these actions:

? Engage or create a local or regional long-term recovery organization.

? Develop centers for community engagement and/or centers for teaching and learning that lift up service and civically engaged pedagogies (e.g., service learning).

? Identify and train local retired college employees to participate and lead on behalf of your institution.

? Partner with the American Red Cross to provide emergency shelter.

? Contact (if religiously affiliated) your denominational disaster response organization to explore partnerships.

? Network with alumni in the business of disaster response.

? Create and train a student response team.

? Develop a campus response plan (focusing on assistance, not just recovery).

? Integrate the campus plan with local and regional response plans.

? Put in place risk management policies to enable an informed, safe, and quick response.

Of course, colleges should engage in disaster recovery because of their commitment to the common good. But with shrinking state budgets and unsteady enrollment numbers, we must also articulate to our colleagues the value of this engagement for the mission of the college.

College has traditionally been thought of as a preparatory experience where students come as blank pages and professors provide the ink on the page, with the hope that students follow the script after graduation with a commitment to the common good. Students no longer need us simply for information; they look for colleges to interject meaning and purpose into that information. They seek connections between what they are studying and the profound challenges they face. Engaging students in disaster recovery is an opportunity for colleges to lift up what we are all about?service and learning.

Daniel R. Kittle is the director of the Center for Community Engagement at Wartburg College (Iowa), where he also teaches a first-year seminar and courses in the leadership department. He serves as the founding president of Bremer County’s long-term recovery coalition.

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