Role of universities examined in disaster-preparedness, response and recovery

Kristie Auman-Bauer
December 05, 2019

ALBANY, N.Y. — Roughly 400 researchers and educators from more than 114 institutions across the nation recently joined together to explore how higher education can strengthen preparedness, response, and recovery in the face of growing threats posed by climate change and extreme weather.

The “RISE CONFERENCE 2019: Transforming University Engagement In Pre- and Post-Disaster Environments: Lessons from Puerto Rico," was held at the  State University of New York-Albany in partnership with the University of Puerto Rico, National Institute for Energy and Island Sustainability (INESI), and National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE). It featured three days of panel discussions, roundtables, workshops and keynotes led by college presidents, scholars, community leaders and government officials.

Organized by two professors from the University of Puerto Rico–Mayaguez — Marla Perez-Lugo, professor of sociology, and her husband, Cecilio Ortiz-Garcia, professor of political sciences — the idea of a conference originated from the couple’s personal experiences as local academics and scientists during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Perez-Lugo and Ortiz-Garcia, who are being housed by Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment as senior RISE fellows from the National Council for Science and the Environment, identified serious issues related to the lack of intervention coordination among the well-intentioned agencies, colleges, and universities from the U.S. mainland. However, they quickly realized that this lack of coordination was not unique to the Puerto Rican experience. Disasters in other areas of the United States, such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Flint, Michigan, after discovering the contamination of the city’s water, reflected the same dynamics.

Perez-Lugo and Ortiz-Garcia invited the researchers and university representatives they encountered in the field to return to Puerto Rico in the summer of 2018 to reflect upon pre- and post-disaster issues. According to Perez-Lugo, almost 100 researchers came for the three-day workshop, which served as the motivation for establishing the inaugural RISE 2019 National Conference.

The conference was designed to explore ways that higher education institutions can strengthen disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts in an era of increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change.

“Universities are converging science, knowledge and technology, but also need to factor in a climate-changing world,” said Perez-Lugo. “The RISE Conference is centered on the idea of developing a network that can cover the country in a polycentric way. The universities, organizations and agencies in this network know what their communities need and how to boost community resilience.”

The conference kicked off with an informal preconference networking session designed to allow new relationships to form within the RISE network.

"The RISE network optimizes convergences across disciplines and is very issue focused,” Ortiz-Garcia explained.

The conference included 27 concurrent sessions with diverse topics such as disaster planning and response, climate adaptation, public health preparedness and recovery from natural disaster, and university partnerships in research and development, education and engagement.

“The nature of the sessions demonstrated that institutes of higher learning can practice humility with stakeholders and peers, and that they can collaborate as well as compete,” said Ortiz-Garcia.

Additionally, students were a focus of the conference, which included sessions on students displaced by natural disaster. There were also 70 student posters on topics such as surviving Hurricane Maria, post-Hurricane Irma housing reconstruction, food security in disaster recovery, education through adversity, community drinking-water systems, and being disconnected in a connected world.

Seven cohort breakout sessions also took place, featuring researchers, students and agency representatives.

“Conferences can be passive, but cohort workshops are interactive. Each cohort was responsible for producing a report on their group’s findings. They were also charged with developing a mission statement, goals and objectives. More than half of the attendees engaged,” Perez-Lugo said.

Next steps are to network with other institutions across the country via observatories focused on building climate resiliency, pre- and post-disaster preparedness, and to expand the idea of disaster research in the face of climate-change uncertainty. Biannual conferences are also being planned to deepen university-community engagement and strengthen the resiliency of communities in the years ahead.

Penn State attendees include Alexis Santos, assistant professor of human development and family studies and Social Science Research Institute cofunded faculty member; Erica Smithwick, E. Willlard and Ruby S. Miller Professor of Geography and director of the Ecology Institute; Jenni Evans, professor of meteorology and atmospheric science and director of the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences; Ben Goldman, archivist for curatorial services and strategy in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library; and Maria Bermudez, graduate student of philosophy.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 13, 2019