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Tulane students Kristen Fadely and David Welch at Northwestern

 

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Charlie Srivilasa

 

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Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

McCormick responds

"Hurricane Katrina was a seminal event," explains Joseph Schofer, associate dean for faculty affairs and professor of civil and environmental engineering at McCormick. "It was unique in terms of size and scope but also in the way that it affected us here at McCormick."

McCormick joined the rest of the country last September searching for ways to help in the aftermath of Katrina. "We had people who volunteered, and we made a home for students and allowed them to continue their education. We also used Katrina as an opportunity to study, analyze, learn, and contribute to the public," says Schofer. "I'm pleased with the various ways McCormick was able to contribute. It gave us all an opportunity to learn to do a better job in the future."

Making a new home for students

Hurricane Katrina forced many Gulf Coast universities to close their doors for fall semester, leaving many students without an academic home. Universities across the country answered the call to help - and Northwestern was no exception. The University enrolled a total of 64 students for fall quarter. McCormick welcomed four of those students, including David Welch, a junior studying biomedical engineering at Tulane University.

McCormick appealed to Welch because it was one of the ABET-accredited biomedical engineering programs closest to his home in Kansas. It was important to Welch, a junior, to stay on track with his major - something that wasn't a problem at McCormick. "Regis­tration was the easiest part," he says. "They had staff available in the computer lab to help us get into whatever classes we needed." Welch moved into the Public Affairs Residential College, where many other Tulane students - affectionately nicknamed "Stormies" - were housed. "It was like being a freshman again," he says. "The rest of our building was mostly freshman, and about half of my floor was from Tulane."

As Welch headed back to finish his degree at Tulane, he took with him fond memories of his temporary home. "It was a very good experience," he says. "I made connections I hope to keep for the rest of my life."

Lending a helping hand

After seeing the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last September, Charlie Srivilasa (biomedical engineering '07) felt compelled to help. Thanks to his training as an emergency medical technician (EMT), Srivilasa was able to be a significant contributor in the disaster area.

Flexible arrangements with the McCormick School allowed him to spend two weeks helping those affected by the hurricanes. Working with Joe Holtgreive, assistant dean for undergraduate engineering; Matt Glucksberg, professor and chair of biomedical engineering; and his other professors, Srivilasa was able to rearrange his class schedule. He called several volunteer organizations before finally connecting with Remote Area Medical, a group that typically provides free health care to impoverished areas in Tennessee and West Virginia. Then he flew into Gulfport, Mississippi - one of the only open airports in the region.

For the next two weeks Srivilasa served with a doctor and two nurses on the staff of a traveling clinic. They set up in any available space, utilizing any methods available to advertise their services. They sent radio messages offering medical services and even went door to door, seeking those who might not be able to travel to the clinic. They treated serious injuries, immunized those who needed protection from disease, and cared for common maladies. "A lot of people had high blood pressure or were suffering from depression, but had no medication left," he explains. They treated as many people as possible each day, seeing up to 1,000 patients each week.

Srivilasa's experience in New Orleans will serve him well in the future - one that includes plans for medical school. "We were practicing the stripped-down basics of health care," he says. "It was one on one with the patients, no bureaucracy. This confirmed that I really do want to pursue a career in health care. I want to continue to give back to others."

Faculty experts speak out

In the weeks immediately following the hurricanes, many faculty members at McCormick were sought out by the media to provide expertise on the science and technology behind the tragedies. Members of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Infrastructure Technology Institute were cited more than 30 times, providing insight on everything from coastal protection to hurricane recovery. Quoted in such sources as the New York Times, USA Today, and ABC News, McCormick faculty helped the nation and the world understand the role of engineering in preparing for - and recovering from - a natural disaster.

Hoping to provide a forum for discussion of the problems facing the Gulf Coast - and to demonstrate the relevance of an engineering education to the needs of society - McCormick organized the symposium "Hurricane Katrina: Preparation, Response, and Rebuilding" in October. Moderated by Joseph Schofer, a panel of six faculty members from across the University presented their perspectives on the lessons of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to a packed room of students, faculty, and alumni.

Charles Dowding, professor of civil and environmental engineering, discussed problems leading up to the disaster, including the geophysical inevitability of natural disasters and the shift of population into areas facing a high risk of natural disasters.

Kimberly Gray, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and of chemical and biological engineering, proposed that Katrina spotlighted a "chronic condition" - the containment of natural processes that cause cascading intentional and unintentional outcomes. The rerouting of the Mississippi River to facilitate barge traffic, for example, leaves areas in the Mississippi Delta without the natural land-building effect of sedimentation.

Henry Binford, associate professor of history in Weinberg College, highlighted similar disasters in the 1927 Mississippi River Flood and Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Binford noted that as early as 1840 engineers recognized the unique problems of New Orleans's location.

Anne Johnsos, adjunct lecturer in the Medill School of Journalism, discussed the intensely emotional qualities that pervaded press coverage of Katrina's aftermath. She explained that reporters were dependent on local agencies and people for their well-being, possibly resulting in a skewed perspective.

Donald Haider, professor and director of the Center for Non­profit Man­agement at the J. L. Kellogg School of Management, discussed the problems facing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arguing that due to the agency's wide range of accountability and responsibilities, it was nearly impossible to prepare effectively for disasters such as Katrina.

David Schulz, director of Northwestern's Infrastructure Technology Institute, suggested that raising the grade of New Orleans to prevent flooding - similar to work done in Chicago in the 1850s and in Galveston, Texas, in 1913 - was worth investigating. He also stressed the importance of fixing the relationships between local, state, and federal governments before any specific engineering, architecture, or planning solutions could be effective.

A recurring theme throughout the presentations was the over­arching problem of a population shift to areas that are highly susceptible to natural disasters. Whether referring to hurricanes in New Orleans or Miami or to earthquakes in Los Angeles or San Francisco, faculty experts warned of the inevitability of future disasters.

In addition to McCormick's Katrina seminar, Northwestern's Transportation Center brought representatives from a variety of private transportation companies together to discuss Katrina's impact on the industry. "It's important to use these national events as a learning opportunity," says Schofer, "and then to use our faculty as intellectual bridges to share what they've learned with our students and the general public."