Doing Our Part to Help

UB's Response to National Emergency is Intense and Multifaceted

Compiled by Ann Whitcher with reports by Ellen Goldbaum and Sue Wuetcher

Fleur Di Lis Drive

An inundated New Orleans neighborhood, with the street sign a reminder of the city's French origins. (Photo: Dennis Whitehead, MD '75)

Apocalyptic images, stories of heroism, accounts of unspeakable loss—the weather emergencies of 2005, especially hurricane Katrina, have tested the nation's mettle and stirred its conscience.

At a research university such as UB, the collective engagement of scientists, social workers, engineers, architects, physicians and theorists met the challenge directly and emphatically. In doing so, they also furthered emergency preparedness as a key area of research and scientific investigation, one that is a part of the “UB 2020” strategic planning. For these faculty members, research aims were inextricably tied to serving their fellow citizens in the Gulf Region.

Alumni were also part of the university's collective outreach, with organizing fund-raisers and rushing to provide aid in the aftermath. (See page 27 for more on how individuals helped out in a national emergency.) Among those responding was a Michigan emergency physician who volunteered with Louisiana health authorities, and a group of forensic dentists from New York and Florida who assisted with recovery and identification of victims' remains.

UB students also played a big part in reaching out to others and serving the public good. From welcoming displaced Louisiana students during the fall semester to using their winter break for on-site assistance, they, too, are making a difference.

Researchers Head to New Orleans

Only days after hurricane Katrina hit, research teams from UB's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) were dispatched to the Mississippi coast to conduct structural analysis and remote sensing of damage to large structures. Their work was primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.

Later, on October 3, MCEER sent three teams of researchers to New Orleans, again with funding primarily from the National Science Foundation. This group applied a multihazard perspective to the stricken city, examining structural damage, but also gathering valuable data about how hospitals, transportation agencies, utility companies and building managers decided to adhere to—or alter—their evacuation plans before, during and after Katrina. Another MCEER team traveled to New Orleans on October 19 to study environmental and health issues.

“These kinds of decisions go beyond the technical world,” explained Andre Filiatrault, deputy director of MCEER and professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “In addition to researching technical methods for reinforcing structures after earthquakes or other hazards,” Filiatrault said, “MCEER couples engineering expertise with social science expertise to learn how organizations behave when faced with a disaster of this magnitude.”

Throughout the semester, these teams continued daily postings of pictures and text of their work and findings at http://mceer.buffalo.edu. “Every night [while in the Gulf Region], we'd upload our data and images to the MCEER Web site,” said Gilberto Mosqueda, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering and team leader in the field. “We wanted to get our data out to other researchers as early as possible.”

A Doctor Works to Ease the Pain

Relief workers

Dennis Whitehead, MD '75, outside a shelter in Bush, Louisiana, with other relief workers, including local and out-of-state volunteers and a midwife.

For his part, Dennis Whitehead, MD '75, chief of emergency services at Dickinson County Healthcare System in Iron Mountain, Michigan, spent six days in the Gulf Region, working with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, supporting search and rescue efforts in downtown New Orleans, assisting boat crews in the flooded areas, treating rescue workers, and examining shelter patients in rural St. Tammany's Parish.

“We encountered many people still in the city who had medical problems, especially diabetics with uncontrolled sugars. Power was out and refrigerated insulin was going bad,” Whitehead said of his relief work shortly after arriving in New Orleans. “We examined people wherever we found them, and got tips on shut-ins nearby whom we visited in their beds. We convinced a few folks who had been thinking about evacuating to come along with us, prompting one dispatch sergeant at the helipad to ask, “Where are you guys finding all these people?”

Disseminating Research Worldwide

Meanwhile, in specific MCEER initiatives, Mosqueda and Keith Porter, senior research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, looked primarily at damage to commercial buildings and lifelines, including electric, gas and phone lines. They also interviewed utility crews and decision makers to find out how they responded to the disaster.

As part of MCEER's work, Shubharoop Ghosh of ImageCat Inc., a California-based advanced technology company; and Carol Hill, doctoral candidate at Louisiana State University, correlated damage detected by satellites with measurements they took in the field using digital cameras. The cameras were mounted on a vehicle traveling at slow speeds through the damaged regions. ImageCat's visualization software, called VIEWS, allowed the researchers to quickly correlate digital pictures extracted from the video with satellite imagery.

For a complete Webcast of the November 2 MCEER seminar on UB's emergency response, go to http://mceer.buffalo.edu/education/webcast/Hurricane_Katrina_Seminar/Default.asp. Go to “Archived Webcast & Presentations” and click on “View Webcast.”

Help From Many Perspectives

Bridge over Biloxi Bay

Katrina's wrath collapsed this bridge span over Biloxi Bay between Harrison and Jackson counties in Mississippi.

From the beginning, MCEER's efforts involved colleagues from elsewhere in the university. Social theorists, for instance, examined the financial, political and social considerations that led to the decisions that hospitals and other organizations made before, during and after the hurricane. Speaking about his study and outreach at a November 2 MCEER seminar at the Center for the Arts, Daniel B. Hess, assistant professor of urban and regional planning, UB School of Architecture and Planning, described his interviews with hospital personnel who worked through the hurricane and its aftermath in New Orleans.

Hess, who conducted his interviews with Lucy Arendt, professor in the School of Business at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, said hospital staff members reported they made it through the hurricane itself without much damage. However, it was the second disaster—the flooding and the loss of power—that had such a paralyzing effect.

“The back-to-back disasters led us to think about suggestions for emergency planners: Imagine the worst event possible and then double it,” Hess said. “And don't plan for only one hazardous event.”

Visiting Tulane students with President Simpson

Tulane students Emily Eckert, Erin Hershey and Nathan Caughel, enrolled as visiting students, joined President John B. Simpson for a Bulls game. (Photo: Nancy J. Parisi)

Katrina Spurs Shift in Course Focus

As Katrina barreled ashore, many UB classrooms began to feel Katrina's effects, too, with some professors applying its lessons to help students better understand—and learn from—the complex phenomena. When Katrina made landfall on August 29, it was the start of “Preventing Geologic Disasters,” taught by Michael F. Sheridan, UB Distinguished Professor of Geology. Sheridan decided to jettison much of what had been planned, and focused instead on Katrina as the harshest of case studies. “This is a real case,” Sheridan said at the time. “None of our material is coming from textbooks, or the peer-reviewed literature. We're all following it together, getting the information as it develops from the media.”

What We Have Learned

At the MCEER seminar, Jerome S. O'Connor, senior program manager for transportation research, presented slides of two different bridges for audience comparison. In both, the bridge superstructures had simply dropped off their piers into the water. One bridge had been damaged by hurricane Katrina and the other had been damaged by an earthquake. “You can see why, as a center, we went down to investigate, because there are striking similarities between hurricane damage and earthquake damage,” O'Connor said. Audience members learned the flooding and loss of power had impacted all sectors by:

  • rendering wastewater treatment plants useless.
  • severely jeopardizing the ability of hospitals to keep patients safe, particularly those on dialysis whose treatments require both water and power.
  • encouraging rapid spread of black mold, rotting thousands of wooden homes. (Some engineered structures have to be stripped down to their steel frames and practically reconstructed because of the mold problem.)
  • causing electrical utility boxes not just to short out, but to start corroding as a result of exposure to saltwater.

Preparation and Public Health

Student donating blood

Christopher Meigel donates to blood drive in Student Union. (Photo: Nancy J. Parisi)

The loss of electricity had a domino effect on emergency services, with medical treatment and public health affected in unforeseen or unexpected ways. In St. Tammany's Parish, Whitehead described visiting several rural areas to do EMS [Emergency Medical Services] assessments, where he and colleagues stopped at several shelters in each town. “We wrote plenty of prescriptions for people who did not have their regular medicines,” he said. “The biggest problems were with hypertensives and diabetics, with several of the latter having to be put on oral hypoglycemics temporarily until the power could be restored.”

According to James N. Jensen, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, Louisiana is home to some 20,000 wastewater treatment units owned by individual homeowners. These units also were inundated by the flood, creating environmental issues of their own. This was in addition to the fact that some 13 million people were without drinking water after the hurricane.

While working in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, Whitehead observed that “water was up to the roof gutters on single-story houses, most of which seemed to be a total loss. I can't adequately describe the pervasive miasma of the floodwater, more like condensed sewage with chemicals floating on top.”

University Strong in 'Extreme Events'

While many institutions “jumped on the bandwagon” of “extreme events” research since September 11, UB has been a leader in the field for many years and is continuing to build on its already existing strengths, say faculty members who are leading planning efforts for the “Extreme Events: Mitigation and Response” strategic strength area in the UB 2020 institutional planning process.

“This is our forte; this is the stuff we've been doing for years. This is building on a strength,” said Michel Bruneau, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, and MCEER director, addressing the UB Council on November 28. “We bring entities together as projects arise. The strategic strength is helping to foster interdepartmental, interdisciplinary collaboration across the campus.”

Bruneau's colleague, Ernest Sternberg, professor of urban and regional planning in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, defined an extreme event as “something that has a relatively rapid onset, and because of this rapid onset, a rapid reorganization of society and emergency services must take place.”

Serving the Emotional Needs of Victims

Joining her UB colleagues in emergency response was Nancy J. Smyth, dean of the UB School of Social Work, who found herself volunteering in one of the temporary shelters for Katrina evacuees in San Antonio, Texas, an old shopping mall that made “a surprisingly good shelter for 800 people.”

On hand to provide mental health counseling two weeks after Katrina's impact, Smyth, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder, did a little bit of everything, including helping a depressed woman locate her boyfriend who was in substance-abuse treatment in another state. She also worked with Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) workers to communicate with Louisiana CPS to ensure that an adolescent at the shelter was returned to appropriate supervised care.

“No matter what your role,” Smyth said, “being a social worker involves understanding what's needed in a situation and developing a plan with your client to meet those needs, even when it doesn't fit what you've been told to do. And it helps to be prepared. I was able to volunteer in the mental health unit (as opposed to general volunteering) because I had previously uploaded my social work license to a protected online Web site, enabling me to print it out and show it to the Red Cross.”

Students Develop Varied Initiatives

Alpha Phi Omega Students

Corey Mohr buys Mardi Gras beads from Mackenzie Bailey and Tim Burrows at Alpha Phi Omega booth to benefit Katrina relief. (Photo: Sue Wuetcher)

According to a November report from the National Student Clearinghouse, more than 18,000 Louisiana college students were displaced by the hurricane and scattered among 1,017 colleges and universities in ten states and the District of Columbia. In addition to welcoming the 12 Gulf Region students who attended UB for the fall semester, student and faculty/staff organizations continue to assist victims of Katrina through fund-raisers and activities such as Red Cross blood drives.

The university's hurricane relief effort raised $10,000 for the SEFA campaign, earmarked for the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. The money was raised through a variety of campus campaigns, including the “Skip-a-Meal” program. Other students gave cash through an online donation page. More than 2,000 meals were donated by UB students, resulting in a cash donation of $5,400 to the relief fund.

As the semester closed in December, UB students were once again reaching out to those in need. Twenty-five graduate and undergraduate students from the School of Architecture and Planning left on December 27 to spend their winter break in New Orleans working with church groups to help rebuild the hurricane-devastated region.

“It will not be a relaxing vacation,” Nate Cornman, student trip leader, said in a letter seeking support for the 18-day mission. “It will be a focused endeavor to give relief to our fellow Americans in their time of need.”

Related Reading: Extreme Events a Focus Area for UB, Why I Needed to Help in the Aftermath