Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hurricane Omar and preparedness

I was in Dominica during the week of October 13, 2008 and was preparing to return to the U.S. when I discovered that Hurricane Omar had emerged out of the southern Caribbean, making a northern trek that would land it across Puerto Rico, the route of my next day's travel. I quickly rescheduled my flight. I called my advisor who got on line and immediately noticed that the outer bands of the storm would affect the islands. I found it unbelievable that meteorological and disaster management officers looked surprised when on Wednesday evening and all of Thursday sea swells over 15 feet high pounded the coast. When it was over several coast homes were destroyed, two communities were cut-off, electricity and water were interrupted,fishermen has lost their boats, and several communities were inundated with water and debris. Coastal beaches were severely eroded. Schools were closed and businesses hurriedly shut down. To not know that a storm of any size in the almost land locked Caribbean Seas would result in huge sea swell was sheer miscalculation. Hurricane Lenny in 1999 had similar consequences. Are we learning from past experiences or did we just let down our guards? Vulnerable countries and communities are to be constantly on guard and in this case we may have let our guards down. We know too well from chronic exposure to hurricanes, their potency and their disruptive impacts on life and livelihoods. Information remains critical. It must be disseminated, if at least for awareness. this is critical for collective action during as threats unfolds and in this case, Hurricane Omar. Disaster events should never be taken for granted. They must be taken seriously.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Forgotten People of Disaster

My interest in chronic natural disasters particularly hurricane began with a personal experience in 1979. August, 29, Hurricane David at 120 mph crossed over Dominica. It killed over 40 people and left over 80% of the population homeless. My home lost its roof so did that of my grandparents and neighbors. We lost everything. the following week we got hit again by Hurricane Allen. I remember standing over the beaten landscape, a hopelessness punctuated the air. A compelling sense of resignation, it seems, had taken over. We did not know where to start or even how to start. The task looked overwhelming. If was impossible to get to the outside world. Telecommunications was decimated. Fred White using a ham radio make first contact with the outside world. Every plant it seems was stripped of every leaf. The hills looked as if someone had torched them. Life looked impossible. It was by day three we recognize that we were on our own. Once that kicked in, we started putting the pieces of our lives together. I was entering my final year of high school. I lost my books and clothes. A a nation, it took us 18 months to finally have electricity restored. We spent two years on aid and food ration because the following year, Hurricane Fredrick destroyed the entire banana industry. We had lost our economic mainstay, again.

It took me four (4)months to get back into school. Our school building was used as a hurricane shelter. School administrators treated us as if nothing had happened. Within two (2)weeks we had an examination to determine if we would be allowed to write the life altering final examinations administered by the University of Cambridge. I failed woefully, studying by candlelight. By the end of the second term (semester)I had another exam to determine if I would graduate, again I failed. I could not reconcile how I came from the top two in class to this. It was the same cohort of students. So I did not make it to graduation (graduation for us is simply a right of passage. It has no currency) but I focused on the all important University of Cambridge final examination, which I passed.

It was not until I came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1999 and I was researching for an independent study on children and schooling in the aftermath of hurricanes that I finally came face to face with my experience. Since no one had done any work in the area, I depended on online sources, reports and briefs from news and relief agencies. I found that schools were disrupted for up to six (6) months while they were used as shelters. Other were destroyed and had to be repaired or rebuilt completely and that could take months. parens, teachers and freinds had died. I also discovered the long lasting effect of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. As I researched and wrote, I remember stumbling across an article 'The Forgotten People of Disaster,' written after hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998. As I read the experiences of children, for the first time, I came face to face with mine and I simply lost it. I just broke down and wept as I remembered, how I struggled alone to piece my life together. It was my final year of high school and so much depended on that year and there was no support as I came to terms with the experience. Since then, we have had many hurricanes, none like David but each time one of these comes; the fears, the stress, the apprehension of that first experience are relived, several times a year.

From that day, I decided to give children in areas of chronic disasters a voice and a face. They are 'The forgotten People of Disaster." They are the silent sufferers and endure multiple afflictions - personally and educationally. My work starts therefore from understanding chronic disasters. While the mainstream schools has focused on disasters as acute events, I focus on disasters as chronic events and the persistent debilitation and recurring exposure require different approaches theoretically and conceptually. I know I can make a difference for children and for their school as we work with them to reconstruct their lives as they reconstruct their schools and communities after disasters.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hurricane Ike and resilience

Last night, Hurricane Ike finally found his way into Pittsburgh, knocking down power lines, felling trees, creating a scare and traffic congestion. The 70mph wind gusts was minimal compared to what Texas and Louisiana got and the destruction and disruption there are widespread. Many who chose not to evacuate, relate near death experiences. They vow never to stay irrespective of the size or strength of the storms. Ike's was only a category 2 but its sheer size gave it the impact of a category 3-4. One thing is almost always certain with hurricanes, they will disrupt telecommunications, power and transport . These are so central to community operations that their disruption disrupts almost everything else including lives. It is always better to evacuate. For small island communities in the Caribbean evacuating is never an option. Resilience is the option.

Finding ways to cope, to bounce back and to do so within days is the objective. We have learnt the art of constucting to withstand hurricanes using concrete structures, heaped roofs with hurricane ties, building on concrete columns or stilts and use of hurricane shutters. We have learnt that we are our neighbors keepers and as citizens we spring into action to help. Our neighbors doors are always open in the face of disasters.

This morning I stepped out of my house to find that a huge tree had fallen across the street and smashing the cars beneath it. Caution tapes were stretched on both sides of the incident, warning unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians and waiting for someone else to clear the tree and the debris. On seeing that, I reflected on the reaction to a similar scene at home in the Caribbean. I would have awaken to find the street cleared. Local chainsaw operators would immediately sprint into action. This experience has become so normal that local communities, neighbors and residents along streets in the Caribbean know the urgency and often with few streets, quick local action is required. Often enough, few others exist to do the task. These have contributed to the kind of resilience that has given Caribbean islands the coping skills during disasters and particularly hurricanes. Roads are cleared almost immediately; teams of electricians move from one island to the next restoring power. Teams of contractors and carpenters travel to the areas needing assitance. Communities must be prepared to spring into response action during hurricanes and any disaster for that matter. Simply waiting for the authorities to do it marks the absence of resilience and a failure to understand that restoring system are essential to averting disaster.

In Galveston, the disruption is such that people are being evacuated, after the hurricane. Those who were evacuated before are unable to return as the clean up, search and rescue continued. Schools have been closed indefinitely. Previous instruction time is being lost particularly for those in their final year and those preparing for crucial exams, the loss of books, uniforms and power are bound to have their impacts. The trauma of having experienced the disaster itself and its aftermath can last for years, affecting learning. We do not know how many schools were destroyed or inundated with water. This can delay further the return to a normal school life. The issue of death of friends, family, teachers and pets can be debilitating for children. Ike is gone but it leaves behind, fast on the hills of Gustav, the Katrina story of risk associated with encroachment on natural and cultural protections, and the vulnerability of coastal regions. We may not be able to do much but we sure can do a better job of community response and local action, and in getting these communities to take more responsibility for their safety. This begins with forging social relations that allows communities to transit to a disaster response mode. This include caring for others and their welfare and understanding that self security is enmeshed with the securing of others. School are pivotal in teaching and fostering that kind of resilience in the young as a foundation for resilient community construction.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Day After Gustav

Now that Gustav has gone on and the post mortem has begun, I think it is time to write the obituary. Here goes

1. The evacuation was a success largely due to Katrina. This was a lesson well learnt more by the people for having experienced Katrina and its aftermath and of course coming so close as it did on the hills on Katrina and having just celebrated the 3rd anniversary. Talk of a dress rehearsal. With most of the people gone, one wonder whether the extensive deployment of the national guard was essential.

2. Hospitals had back-up electricity and landing pads for emergency evacuation should it become necessary

3. The levees we are told held up but Gustav was no Katrina. So the question is, held up to what? I saw leaks and water inundations in several places that appeared to be have been played down or explained away. Had this storm come in with the same venom with which it left Cuba, the results for the levees would have been the same as in Katrina

4. Disaster response is about local organizing and leadership; Thanks to Katrina, local leaders having experienced the worst, were able to keep their nerves this time and call the shorts rather than wait for a distant bureaucracy to do so.

5. Helicopters were waiting in the wings should emergency evacuation become necessary. This was organized before the storm; a lesson learned well.

6. My thesis still held: despite the size of the storm, three critical things will fail and in Gustav they did; telecommunications, transport routes and electrical power - three essential services. This strengthens my positions that local communities, neighborhoods are the basis for organizing for disaster preparation and response. The role of other levels of government is to support and provide the resources to facilitate the organizing.

7. What we have not seen and is still unrecorded is the trauma associated with having to go through this experience again and again. It raises the need to rethink our processes, structures and organizations in the face of this chronic exposure to hurricanes. A different set of arrangement may be required as opposed to those used for acute disasters. This one will keep coming and the response must be the same because big or large, once it's named a hurricane, essential services will collapse and the presence of population in these areas simply turns the disaster into a catastrophe. Katrina was bad because of the water, it was worst because of the people who did not evacuate. This time we got them out, reducing the trauma but vestiges of it remains because each time a new storm comes, it resurrects traumas inflicted by previous storms.

In the absence of these critical services, the responsibility rests on neighborhoods and local communities to respond to the needs of each other; establishing and maintaining the relationships at these levels to accomplish that is paramount.

In the end, it seems, it was the combination of a weaker Gustav and the experience of a stronger Katrina, three years before that may have spared the city but as expected the critical services still collapsed. However we perceive it, moving the people out was the best strategy that could have been employed and it worked, Major Nagin. It worked in part because you had the support and the resources. Now is the time to focus on the resilience and that includes restoring the wetlands because it will happen again.

For me, schools were disrupted again. Children are dispersed in at least five states;their homes may have been destroyed or even their schools. It may be days before they return. They have to make that re-adjustment, settle again and start over. They saw it all three years ago. I wonder how they feel and what coping mechanisms do they use. How prepared in the school system for sometime like this and to think we are in the peak of the hurricane season? It will happen again, this year, next year, the next three years or every year for the next five years. This is chronic. It does not go away. Hurricanes will not go away. We need to be resilient, children need to be made resilient.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Still watching Gustav

Its 1:09 am and I am hurricane watching as i have always done when I am home in the Caribbean. I stay up all night tracking the storm and its impacts as they unfold. I recall doing the same when Katrina struck. If fact, I was vacationing with my family in Texas and they left a day before me and then I became trapped in Texas since AA was reluctant to fly to Miami. They switched me to Continental and that's how I got out and I watched Katrina from Dominica.

Now I am here, pursuing that PhD leading to research on children, Learning and Chronic Natural Disaster. Hence my love affairs with hurricane. I just love watching these storms. I hold a first degree in Geography, half of the Meteorologist back home, I taught in College. There is a fascination with these storms - their growth and development; the calm of the eyes, the surge. It is just unfortunate that man and his creations are in the way, otherwise they would be true forces of nature. Hurricanes are part of the earth global circulatory system. They redistribute, the earth moisture, air pressure and temperature, Without them some places would be too hot, others too dry or the pressure would simple build up to killer levels.

So while I pity those in its way, as a geographer, I cannot help but marvel at the systems as they trek their way. I was in high school in 1979 when Hurricane David struck Dominica and literally flattened the island, killed 49 and left about 75% of the population homeless.

I wonder about schools and the children but I still cannot understand why there are no emergency shelters. Is it the potential for flooding?

There should be more accurate figures on who stayed, where they are and what are their needs. It help to sharpen the response. We should never assume that people will respond to evacuation orders.

Schools will be disrupted again, learning will be suspended and for those who left, we are not sure if and when they will return. Will their schools be left intact? Will they be flooded? With they, their teachers and families make it through safely? All these will have their toll on these children. I am watching as all these unfold.

Following Gustav and his friends

This is Sunday, August 31, 2008 and I am following Hurricane Gustav and his friends who are taking a hazardous trip across the Caribbean and aiming to reach the United States - Hanna, Ike and Josephine in this order.

Gustav's trajectory offers an opportunity to assess the lessons learnt from Katrina and to evaluate the preparation and response to what is drumming up to be a major disaster producing event. I accept the position that it is the failure of the cultural protections that leads to disasters and that diasters are the result of interaction between these events and human vulnerabilities. Already, efforts are being made to evacuate early and the use the national guard to enforce the mandate. The federal government is on high alert. Chernoff has flown to New Orleans to assess the preparation. What ever happens the impact is already felt, the thousands how are now being displaced, separated from each other and their pets. At category 4, it is not sure how long before they come back home again. Schooling has been suspended and while children wait it out, precious school days are being lost with many children having to relive the trauma of this experience - chronic exposure to disaster producing events. New Orleans will have the resources to respond. Cuba and Haiti may not have these resources, given the kinds and levels of destruction being described as happened there as Gustav trekked its way to the Gulf Coast in the United States.

I expect New Orleans will do better, not because it needs to save face but because it has just experienced Katrina, three years ago, they know more now. Once Gustav has died down, it is necessary to make the transition for effective response. Roads will be blocked or destroyed. Telecommunications will be hampered - respond therefore is better handled locally; the organisational structure normally available to do business will not exist and so new ones without laws, money, need to be formed and so the goodwill of others, their patriotism and 'goodness of heart.'

For me it's finding the schools, locating where they are, assessing the damage or impacts and help to return to student learning as soon as possible. Preparation is crucial in reducing the impact. It is providing the following - security for important documents, locating and organizing critical functions - computer labs and libraries; identifying and securing curriculum materials, temporarily recruiting teachers and other personnel as volunteers since remuneration may not be available in the aftermath.

As this unfolds, the interest is to see how well the city and the state responds this time but this time Gustav may not behave like Katrina and today being Sunday, the roads may be clear to move north and those who do not have means of transportation are going it by train and public buses. I also hope that neighbors are taking neighbors along. Texas and neighboring states are accepting evacuees before rather than after. At least this lesson was learnt. We hope for the best and wish everyone well as we watch Gustav finally come to shore. He does not need a Visa

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Disasters and what Granny said

Mother earth struck again. This time with an earthquake measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale in California. The damage was minimal. Part of the experience was captured on video during the taping of the Judge Judy show. During the quake, it was clear and confirmed by the judge, the occupants in the room were at a loss as to what to do. Some looked for the nearest exit and fled and others stood there paralyzed. The Judge fled from the bench. On interview she said,"my grandmother told me to always be ready and stay ready." The willingness of people to rely on indigenous knowledge during disasters is more often the case than not. The tendency to rush for the exits is also real. The video confirmed the instinctiveness with which people respond in the face of danger or disaster. However, conventional wisdom recommends that people stay where they are. Imagine what would have happened had the buildings collapsed as they did in China earlier this year. An organized exit out of the building into an open space is the best approach to response during an earthquake. However, regular drills and education as to what to do during an earthquake remains the best preparation option. The Judge was right. Despite the persistent exposure to earthquakes in California, the video clearly showed that as a group they were ill prepared and did not know what to do. It may be an indictment on the state or the people. These smaller quakes are dress rehearsals for larger ones. This time, it was an indication that the lessons of past earthquakes may still need to be learned.

Exits have to be clearly located and marked and one cannot assume that structures are strong enough to withstand quakes and therefore capable of protecting people. People are to be evacuated out of a building as soon as possible. In this case, I am pleased that all well that ends well.

A few weeks ago, I completed a GIS scenario of the Oxnard region, California focusing on the impact a tsunami would have had on educational facilities in the area. The scenario showed that about 30 school buildings would be inundated. Such information is essential as part of preparation and response in the event of a marine quake and resulting. The scenario also showed that several emergency facilities would so be inundated. The map serves as a useful tool for planning and future locations of the public facilities. Nothing trounces indigenous knowledge and this remains a vital part of the instinctive response to disasters. Indigenous knowledge was critical in the saving lives during the Indonesian Tsumani which killed thousands.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Troubling Earthquake/Disaster policies

So we have spent the better part of our intelligence advising 'during earthquakes, if indoors seek shelters under sturdy tables or structure." This is advice that is outdated and should not be given for two reasons. Most people who die from earthquakes, die as a result of falling or collapsing structures or flying debris and evacuation is still the primary approach to reduce loss of lives and move people to safety in event of an emergency. So how and when did we collaboratively agreed that it was best to stay in buildings shaking violently during a quake and how did we get so may people to agree. Interestingly, that may have been the advice during 9/11 as the Twin Tower burn to an eventual pancake collapse and it appears that that may also have been the case in China where hundred of school children lost their lives probably suck under "sturdy" chairs and desks.

In the event of an emergency in any building or areas the best option is still evacuation and that should be done within one minute. This raises several issues related to building like schools and hospitals noted for mass occupancy: The need to design and build structures with safety as a key priority is essential. The height of some of these building as in the case of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and schools in China pose additional threats and increases the risk of collapse. They however, highlight the urgency with which evaluation should be pursued during an emergency or the unfolding of a disaster event. So here goes, this "sturdy table or chair does not work under twenty tons of concrete and I suspect when it was proposed, building were mostly wooden, single floor with low centers of gravity. Building structures have changed and it is time to rewrite the policy:

During an earthquake all school buildings must be cleared as quickly as possible. At best this should be accomplished within the first minute of the initial jolt. Residents should move to an open space, previously identified and clear of building, trees and other features likely to create or increase risk. Experience has shown that vibrations that precedes earthquake can be heard and the associated shaking tend to increase in intensity for the first few seconds before it peaks, providing a few crucial seconds for evacuation. During an earthquake time is measured in seconds or less and so people must react in seconds or less.

In the case of schools, each classroom shall be affixed with two doors and school floors with staircases or exists on either end of these floors particularly where they extend above two floors.

Monthly drills must be conducted in schools to ensure that with near instinctiveness students can assist in securing their safety given the few adults who may be present with them during an emergency or disaster.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Floods in the Midwest

Once again the Midwest is inundated with water. The mighty Mississippi and its tributaries are reclaiming territory that they once carved for themselves as compensatory space for such river adjustments when necessary. This time it's necessary. Unfortunately those who occupy these pristine flood plains are once again cut off guard. Then again there may have been little that could have been done at this stage to protect property. The disruptions are enormous - life, work, food supply, school, trade and trannactions. In the next 10 - 12 years it will happen again and again. People will move back in, the levees will be repaired but not upgraded, they will clean, replace what was lost and then they will forget for the next ten years until it happens again. So much for preparedness plans and for putting these blueprints in place. Preparedness is not about documents and blueprints. It about action and knowing how to help yourself and your neighbors when no one else from the outside can reach you. Our lives have been so structured and designed to be response-dependent on elected official, federal and state apparatuses that we have forgotten how to help us; how to take action in the midst of uncertainty to mitigate the risk to which we are exposed to on a daily basis.

Medical researchers may have a lesson or two to teach us. They conduct the research and the counter research and they make the findings available to the public so the public can make informed decison. The United States Geological Soceity (USGS) and the Army Core of Engineers being public organizations have a public responsibility to conduct the research on disaster risk and vulnerability and to provide the public with the information. In a region with a storied history of flooding, little should be taken for granted. By studying snow falls, rainfall figures and matching them against the age, percolation and infiltration levels in the levees one should be able to determine and doing so on a regular basis, the potential for damage. We may not be able to protect property but we can insure against damage. Using a credit union approach, communities can pool their resources for disaster response particlaury for those who are unable to aford the market costs of insurance.Communities must insure themselves against disaster. This requires a different thinking and approach: A shift from individual to community reponse not to the disaster but to the risk. It requires reduced dependence on federal bureaucratic response to increased local community response. It also requires a shift from regional disaster management aproaches to local community responsibility because in the end its the local communities that are affected and it they who have to pick up the pieces; they who have to reconstruct their lives despite the blame and finger pointing. When the cameras are turned off and the press goes home, it is the homeowners and city managers who are left to deal with the impact.

The approach is to protect one's self and one's community aganst the risk and the bottom line is this- once one lives on a flood place with levees and subsequebtly below the high flood mark, there is risk there. It may not be the same every where and no matter how small, it exists and even against that small risk, protection is essential. All that is required for a levee to break is small percolation, and overtime, water finds a way to percolate and infiltrate. Rates at which these occur have to be measured and the results made public. Where risk is present, those at risk have a right to know and to make decisions based on that knowledge.

Sadly, many will be left to put the pieces back together on their own. It is the nature of the social relations that we have nurtured and on which we have prided ourselves - "pulling yourself up by your own bootstrap." It continues to govern our relationships and modus operandi and in the end it seems even we may have to acquire our own knowledge to make our own decisions for what is a boot without straps.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Education Facilities and Disasters

The significance of educational facilities during disaster is yet to be given the kind of attention, I believe it deserves. Education, itself is beginning to receive token mention in the debate on disaster preparedness and response (Kapucu, 2008). The impact of the recent earthquake in China on education facilities is beginning to bring this significane into focus.

Schools are buildings of mass occupancy. Large numbers of students and teachers occupy these buildings for at least five hours each day and at least nine months of the year. Often teachers can have as many as 60 students in one classrooms, particularly in developing countries - areas often hardly hit by hurricanes, typhoons, floods and earthquakes. This situation dramatically increases the risk and vunerabiities. Managing these students in these difficult situation with limited adults has not been affored the attention it deserves. An added risk is the construction and building codes which in the case of China appeared to be suspect and arguably tempered by not knowing the ages of these school buildings.

School buildings have also been known to be the most common means of shelter during disasters. In Dominica for example 75% of hurricane shelters are school plants. A large number of such shelters in Florida are also schools. It is essential then that more attention be paid to construction and building codes for schools. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Organisation of American States (OAS) have committed substantial resources throughout the Caribbean to retrofit and strengthen school buildings to ensure their safety as disaster shelters and centainly as institution of learning. By doing so, they ensure post-disaster education as well particular for those students at critical and transitional phases of their education.

Such attention to school plants require a place in the debates, discourse and literature on disasters and disaster management. Understanding how students are impacted beyond the pyschological and traumatic,an area in which the American Psychological Association (APA) has done substantial work is essential.

The National Clearinghouse for educational Facilities website provides an excellent checklist with queries for assessing educational facilties as a precusor to making improvement to exisitng facilities or designing new ones. Central to the issues related to education facilities and disaster is the broad issue of child safety. Greater attention has to be paid to ensure children's safety during and after disasters and that generally, education takes palce in a safe environment.

Polices ans plans with regard to the use of schools as shelters and to esure smooth transitions from one function to the next does not exist and if it does, may be scant at best. School officials need to have clear blueprints on the approach to management of their school plants as eductional facilities and disaster shelters. This should formalize the relationship and increase the stake to ensure that school facilties meet the construction and building standards. This arragnement will represent a major step towards the often recommended colloboration among engineers, architects, local govenment, emergency and shelter managers and school officials as necessary for effective disaster management. In this way the children and their communties become winners.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Aftermath in China

The figures are astounding - about 900 children may be buried in one school - included are a middle school and a three-storeyed high school building. The questions have begun to emerge for me:

What were the school building codes like?

How soon after the first jolt did the school buildings collapse?

How knowledgeable were adminstrators, students and teachers about the risks and vulnerability of the area to earthquakes?

What did engineers, geologist an hazard managers know about these vulnerabilities?

What did decisionmakers and other community leaders know about the risks?

Did the schools have plans in the event of such disaster events?

What was the pupil-teacher ratio?

Were drills, simulations ever conducted?

What kinds of safety policies and procedures were in place to protect teachers and students for this eventuality?

How should the education sytem respond and how quickly can they return these schools to normalcy?

Did anyone walk out of these schools alive and how were they able to do that?

Were there adequate emergency exits in the building?

Should we re-think building heights for schools? or other buidlings of mass occupancy?

How do we prepare schools for these future eventualities?

Answers to these would not only help China but the rest of the world in better preparing schools for disaster events and reducing the vulnerabilities to these disasters.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tragedy in China

As I write the story unfolds with chilling pictures of a 7.9 earthquake on the Richter Scale; eight schools toppled with hundred of teachers and students trapped. Finding them alive beneath these tonnes of concrete rubble, is going to be a real challenge for rescuers. The sight of mothers with their ears clinging to their cellphone tells the all too familiar stories these days about schools, education and emergencies. Hospitals and factories also collapsed posing concerns about the safety status of public buildings in China and I am sure in other countries worldwide. When the dust will have settled and the rescuers called it a day, the debate will rage on:

How prepared are schools and school administrators for these kindsof disasters?

What plans are in or have been put in place to mitigate against these calamities?

How structurally sounds are the buildings in which children are schooled and what can be done to improve the safely of these structures?

How can rsileince be build in to school programs and structure to mitigate the impact of emergeincies and disasters?

The Unversity of Pittsburgh is at the forefornt of ensuring that there is advocacy and expert advise available to improve on the safety in schools as well as providing tool for mitgation of emergencies and disasters. Our pioneering work on GIS/GPS and emergencies in education is one way to provide information for evacuation of schools and response during disasters. The School of Education, Global Information Network in Education (GINIE) through its Help Desk stands ready to answer questions, queries and provide information and expert advice on emergency situations related to education.

As the frequency of disasters increase, we need to build greater resilience at the community level for disaster events can quickly paralyze communication and transport- two key sectors essential for response and rescue. Increasingly first responders must be community based, hopsitals and other treatment centers must be local or established locally. Children must be taught not only about disasters but for disasters. Students need to be sensitized, irrespective of age, to the impact of disaster and how to make themselves safe. The situation in China underscores the urgent need to pursue this approach; an education in disasters but also for disasters. Our work with USAID can be used as a benchmark for retrofitting school building for example. Conducting persistent drills that go beyond fires is another example.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Disasters in Myanmar, Chile and Peru and children

It has been a devastating week - a cyclone in Myanmar; a volcanic eruption in Southern Chile and flooding in Northern Peru. As the pictures unfold, the site of school aged children wandering the streets of Yangon, boarding an evacuation ship in Chile or stringed across a swollen river In Peru paints a haunting situation. Already two schools in Peru have been destroyed. Schools in the affected areas in Chile have been abandoned and it is difficult to tell how many schools in the Myanmar have been destroyed or disrupted. Five states have been declared disaster areas there. The images are chilling and the need for help overwhelming. The disruption of communication and transport again puts the spotlight on local communities and their roles in emergency and disaster management. Autonomous communities tend to respond faster in emergency situations and are better able to manage the aftermath and defer the progression into a disaster situation. The socioeconomic conditions of residents did contribute to the impact of the disaster event - the limited resources available to deal with mitigation and preparedness; the poor quality of infrastructure and the reduced resilience as a result. Then there are the children and their education who become lost in the move towards normalcy and the kinds of responses that allow for adjustments to the changes inflicted as a result of these disaster events. They will need makeshift, temporary schools, teacher and learning materials. What about students who are in their final year of schooling? What about their examinations? How will they perform on these? What about their books and other curriculum related materials?What has happens to them? School uniforms, etc? What about their parents and how they fared in these disaster events? How soon will these children lives return to normal? After all education is part of their normal. Education in emergencies is essential because schools are central to the lives of children and it symbolizes a return to normal

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Professor Paulston

This is not my usual blog theme but it's about the power of teaching and I needed to speak to it.

Yesterday, April 9, we held wonderful ceremony in the School of Education, Pitt, to honor and remember one of our fallen lecturers Professor Emeritus Rolland Paulston, who died from leukemia two years ago. What a tremendous experience it was as past students and his colleagues tell their stories about him and their interaction with him. We had asked for students with stories who could not make it to send them in , We had stories from China, Finland, Dominica, Nigeria, South Africa, and all over the US. It demonstrated the power of the influence of a teacher and reminds me that teachers should never take their jobs lightly and its not about the money. It's about influencing lives. There were real tears from students who did not get to say goodbye and who recalled the unflinching support he gave during their dissertations. He loved students voices. He always wanted our points of view on what we read and discussed and he was the master social cartographer. He mapped ideas, thoughts, discourses and debates and in so doing he mapped minds and that is why he became a master at shaping them. He knew them and so he knew how to make them. Yesterday, you should have seen those minds he shaped. As a policy analyst, meta-discursive mapping became useful as I trying to develop options for responding to policy problems in education, understanding first, the thinking and ideas of policy makers. Once I approximated these, it became easy to structure my approach in sync with their ideas and thoughts. It worked every time - seeing the world thought the eye of others and with other text. Simple but he made it powerful. I was pleased to know that his work is being taught in Harvard and UCLA. That says something about Pitt, doesn't it (this is me, gloating). Dr. MCClure reminded me "he was influential because he was compassionate" This is what every student needs "a teacher with compassion." He taught me during his final semester prior to retirement in 1999 and I said to him, that "he would never really retire because parts of him that he had passed on to his students would remain to be passed on to generations and so who is and what he stood for will live on. It was like Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, 1986 said, " I touch the future, I teach."

Bomb threat at the Cathedral of Learning

Yesterday, I received a Pitt alert on my cell phone and email that there was a bomb threat in the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt and that I should tell the rest of my class so that we could evacuate the building. Luckily we were not in the Cathedral but there were about 20 of us in the class including our lecturer. Unfortunately, I was the the only one who apparently received the alert. The others may have had their phones turned off. So I told them. I could have walked away but as a student of education in emergencies, I had the responsibility to let them know that there is the potential that we could be in danger. It is these simulation-like exercises and real threats (This was was real. I saw the police with flashing lights and their dogs) that prepare one for the really real one and yesterday proved that many students may not have been prepared and that continues to bother me. What if. we were in real danger? What if we were in places without that alert? What if there was no way to get out and what if all our phones were off?

Safety is important and things fall apart when we are not precautions. We think it may not happen to us until it does and hindsight is always 20/20. Good job to the alert team but alerts work best when people cooperate and collaborate. Sign up for an alert. It may just save your life and that of your friends, colleagues and lecturers. This one came home to me. I was happy the way it came and I remain aware that it does not always come in ways that make one happy. Sign up for an alert... NOW

Friday, April 4, 2008

Disasters of another kind

Last night there was a fatal fire in which a mother, a family friend living with them and their eight children and grand children died. Their gas had been turned off since 2005. They could not pay for it and according to the news report, they used space heating to stay warm. It has not been confirmed but the speculation is that it may have set the house ablaze while they slept. This seems like a simple mishap but the news item showed a pattern of these disasters occurring because utilities are turned off when people cannot pay. A situation made worse since the law was changed. I think of the eight children and the one little body who described the hard time one of them had been having at school and that nobody was nice to him. A child should never have to walk away feeling ostracised. Our schools need to become gentle, kinder places. We need to purposely seek out the hurting ones, the ones on the fringes of our institutions and reassure them that the world is not a bad place. After all Children still learn what they live. They give us what we give them. And please do not think I am about to set up a child rights movement. I want only a child caring movement because every small human being deserves to be loved, cared for and to feel wanted and appreciated. When home is not what it should be, for every child a school should be a soft place to fall. I am sure you feel that way. Children need us to teach them how to become adults. This is probably the best learning we will ever provide. The worse kind of disaster is to wake up and find the next generation never learnt to care for each other because we never "showed" them how to care.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Dismantling Neighborhoods

Children are entitled to good schools, whatever, you take good to mean. It's a function of your expectation and your socio-cultural environment in which case schools are neighborhood entities. There was a time when children could not wander across school districts. Besides keeping education cost down, that policy ensured, though unintentionally I am sure, that there remained a connection between schools and their communities. We knew the teachers and the teachers knew the parents and the children. They went to the same church, rode on the same buses and each knew where the other lived. The teacher was everything to everyone in the community. It was easy to ask about the children and how they were doing at school, often in casual-on-the- phone or by-the-street conversations. We knew instinctively, it seems, that the school was the gateway to society. It was there the next generation was nurtured, taught and socialized how to live with, share with, work with and look out for their peers in society and it became easy because they lived on the same street, or three streets down or around the block. They met at church, at school, in the park, on the streets. School was a natural extension of that camaraderie. Getting along amid looking out for each other came naturally it seems until vouchers and charters came along worsening what was already going bad (Could gangs have been a response to the school-community relations demise or a deepened manifestation of efforts to resist that shift?). I am nt sure but that was me thinking aloud on that last question. By removing students from their neighborhood schools and commuting them like refugees, we have effectively dismantled them from their neighbors and destroyed whatever connections they had. This movement creates the first step in alienation and in the disruption of the very values that are essential to communities in the face of crises, emergencies and disasters. Coordination, Communication, Collaboration and Cooperative are relational conceptions. They best exist and come natural in environments where relationships among individual are held intact and schools have a remarkable way of building and maintaining relations. This is why sororities and fraternities are so powerful. They are the creatures of schools and powerful manifestation of the relational debates. School are not just places for learning and education, they are the basis of community relations and construction. It is in schools societal values are passed on. They are the building block of society. This is one reason why the contestations surrounding education can be so intense and animated. So next time you are offered a dollar to take your child across town or someone sets up a charter as a carrot of academic options or excellence ask them to give the dollar to your child's existing school or build the charter in your community. Because, when it the time comes to work together as neighborhoods and communities, it should not surprise you to find your children are across town if your accept that dollar or send them off to a charter.

Children, Education and HIV/AIDS

Here is another emergency issue that gets hidden in the data and which treats 15-18 year olds as adults preventing us from seeing the true picture. What should we call this one - The Hidden Faces of Disaster? Children are dependents, children can't vote, children are not breadwinners. Is this why we take them for granted. HIV/AIDS and the stigma it presents are real issues for children who are inflicted with the disease through no fault of theirs. Many of them have and will lose their parents, their Friends and sometimes their teachers. They are often ostracised and many are not in situations to articulate their hurt and pain or the alienation from which they suffer. Many of us think the last twenty years have changed us. Has it?

I am writing a paper, publishable, I hope. My professor believes I should think of it, seriously. Its about Education and HIV/AIDS in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The purpose is to identify the impact of the disease on the education system in Nicaragua and Costa Rica as comparatives.

I am discovering that the education related data just isn't there. Where it is, it is hidden in data on adult. Little is said about the children - inflicted or orphaned. The data presented is mostly about women, gathered from testing them during pregnancy and feminizing the disease in the process. If this is when they are tested and it forms the major data source, what happened to the babies? Did they get the disease? Were they treated in time to protect them? Were the therapies even available? If they were could the parents afford them or were they free? This is were poverty and HIV/AIDS become a deadly mix. To know it is available yet inaccessible is the hallmark of being poor. Its like higher education for minorities. Not being able to protect the next generation from disease and death, often not of their own making is indictable and everything we learnt about sustainability goes out with the baby bath.

The chilling tales of street children and HIV/AIDS in some of these third world cities are still waiting to be told. Maybe, just maybe if children could vote or work; if only they had a voice; if only they we not so vulnerable, we would think twice about their welfare and how our follies affect them and their education. Education may be for many their only hope for a "voice"

Friday, March 28, 2008

Can we make school safer?

From Northern Illinois to Oxnard, California, our schools are again emerging as unsafe places. It seems we can no longer drop our children off at school and walk away. We can no longer watch our children walk through our doors and know for sure they are not concealing some deadly weapon. If children cannot be safe at school where can they be? It used to be, we were worried about safety in high schools and colleges. Does it mean we may have to begin to worry about middle schools? School is supposed to be fun. We are supposed to look back on our school days and reminisce of friends and fun, laughter and joy, of scared knees and nicknames, of field trips and birthdays. What has gone wrong? It does not have to be this way. How can we make schools safe again? Researchers tell us that schools are the still the safest place to be. Then we need to make the perception match the research. What can we do? What can you do? Any ideas on how we can improve safety at school? How can we make teachers and student feel safe? How can we make parents feel safe?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Children and school safety

Schools are where children spend much of their time. Their friends are there and this is where they learn to live in the general society as they interact with people outside their kin. Because children are vulnerable, we need to ensure that they are protected both from within and from outside. Feeling safe from harm and danger at school is important, but violence, bullying and the like can disrupt that. I believe we can begin to deal with the root cause and at least reduce the incidence of bullying and we should begin by dealing with the bullies and that which makes them bullies in the first place. Any ideas? Have you ever been bullied or described as a bully?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Voices of Children

I have spent the last three years trying to understand the reasons for school violence and why students bring weapons to school. I spoke with many students back home, in Dominica who get into trouble and the stories they give about being mistreated by students and teachers are overwhelming. Students described how they were ridiculed in class; in the presence of their peers. They spoke about the many complaints they lodged to teachers, principals for which nothing was done and how their side of the stories are never heard when they get into trouble especially where they are repeat offenders. Thy feel an overwhelming need to protect themselves. Many of them are afraid to let their teachers know how they feel about those things. They believe they will use that against them. And whenever, I attempt to discuss my finding with my teacher colleagues, they become defensive and respond with denial or blame the kids and their parents. I wonder, if teachers know and understand how important they are in the lives of their students.

I got to speaking with my advisor about it a few days ago and we struct a conversation that surrounded the "place, status and voice" of the child in school and communities, the perception we hold about children and the many things we do to let children know their "places". Someone said, "We spend two years teaching our children to speak and the rest of their lives asking them to shut up."

Recently, we conducted an OECS study on school disciplinary issues and we asked teachers how many of them would use a loving and caring relationship to deal with student disciplinary problems and only 8% said they would. It confirmed what I always knew. It can be a cold world for many children.

I need to hear your stories or comments about your life at school, especially if you had a tough time there. Understanding this issue would help us deal with an a potential emergency in education: school violence

Please share your stories and blog on

See you online

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Journeys at Pitt - GINIE

Besides, reading and writing and reading and writing and a few subs here and there, Tarun and I are developing a Global Information Network In Education - Part 2 to be housed in the School of Ed. Got it! GINIE (This one is out, Kristina). We are pulling together information, links etc, on the thematic areas of education including Emergencies in Education, for all those who need info on education. We are also setting up a help desk for those who want up-to-date info or how to access such info. We are hoping to tie this into wireless/mobile technology so you can reach us wherever we are in the world - Skype like. We are hoping to be able to give important info on Emergencies in Education particularly as these emergencies unfold to keep students, teachers and administrator safe. After all school are places of mass occupancy. Kool for a 40+ old guy. Wait till my 14 year old son hears this. I'll be the Koolest dad. Oh and we are also using GIS/GPS technology to get you right on the spot- a google-earth like thing. After all this is Pittsburgh - "Knowledge City" Ask President Bush. Did somebody say Boston or Los Angeles? Nah. Pitt is where it's at.

Journeys at Pitt

Well, here I am at 40+ starting a PhD and blogging. You did not really expect me to give you the real figure, huh. I am many miles away from home too and left behind a wife and three children and that is the part that is really tough and it's not like it is the first time. Actually this is the fourth time so they are the reason, I always go back home. I love them and I miss them so badly, it hurts- two daughters and a son. I cannot say this is the last. It's my field. I am in education - I am a teacher by morphology but work these days as a education policy analyst, planner, speechwriter and advisor and everything in between - life on a small island state -sunshine, beaches - well not too many where I am from and mostly black sand - volcanic, got it - atypical for a Caribbean destination, vegetation to die for, waterfalls and an underwater world that is ranked among the best in the world, therefore I have to be multifaceted and multi tasked. Its actually 20 degrees where I am right now- a shocker, given my Caribbean origin but I chose this and there is a price to be paid.

There are no universities back there offering my area and you know the price of higher ed. and so I have to follow the $$$ - scholarships, fellowships or whatever they call it these days.

Which leads me to why I am here - Emergencies in Education - natural disasters (Katrina, remember), Man-made disasters (chronic poverty), Schools as safe places, Violence in schools. School was what pulled me out from where I was and what statistics said I should have become. I want to work to make sure that we can preserve it for generations to come.

Education changes a life and its direction like few things can. So this is why I leave my family but I call them every day and I speak to each one most everyday and our 8 year old said, "We talk with you every day. It's like you are still here." Well, I know you are thinking it's not the same. At least, give a guy some points for trying. I miss them and its tough but we have to do what we have to do. I love them and I love education too. After all "A mind is a terrible thing to make."

Now you know where I am coming from.