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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Culture of Disaster Relief

Air Date: Week of

There are lessons to be learned from the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, says sociologist Joe Trainor of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Trainor tells host Bruce Gellerman it's important to consider societal and cultural norms to figure out how best to provide aid to those suffering from the effects of a catastrophe.


GELLERMAN: Well in recent years, first responders have grown increasingly sophisticated in preparing for and dealing with disasters thanks in part to social scientists who specialize in the field – people like Joe Trainor. He’s with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Trainor says culture and politics play important roles in determining the scale of a catastrophe.

TRAINOR: The same physical events – the same size tornado, the same size hurricane – happening in two different locations, can create drastically different kinds of disasters. It has to do a lot with the way that that location is organized: with the political system, with inequalities that are inherent in most societies, and with the way we organize to deal with these kinds of events.

GELLERMAN: Well governments play key, critical roles in the recovery and relief of, after a disaster.

TRAINOR: Sure, sure.

GELLERMAN: So this specific junta, this dictatorship – what would you want to be studying as a sociologist to make it more effective in terms of providing that relief and recovery?

TRAINOR: One of the things you have to remember, especially in countries that have less economic stability and are developing, is that the resources to develop specific agency for disasters just don’t exist. When you’re having a hard time meeting the basic needs of the people, it’s difficult to shift the attention to something like a disaster that you can’t predict, and you can’t say it’s gonna happen on a regular basis. So in that context, one of the most important things that I’d like to see, or I’d be interested in seeing is the way that the government in the country here is working with non-governmental organizations. The degree to which they’re using their resources to support local community-based resilience, or the capacities that already exist within these communities, so you enable the victims to be an agent in their own response. And this is not just important here, it’s important in every disaster.

GELLERMAN: What about culturally determined responses? That is, things that they might do that are much different from what we might do in that situation.

TRAINOR: This is something that plays in part in a lot of these kinds of events. I know, I went to India and Sri Lanka after the tsunami, and I know in India we were there and we saw these great tents – 1000, 2000-dollar tents, they’re really nice, they’re supposed to be providing aid. And we get to the local area, and no one’s using them. They lived in large family groups, so the tents weren’t big enough. They liked to cook inside their homes, so with a nylon floor they couldn’t cook. So there’s a whole bunch of issues with internationally coming in, but in terms of the local response there’s also gonna be an issue here with the way the government chooses to do things, and the political ramifications they have.

So, for instance, international aid coming in. Now they’ve started to accept international aid, but that process has slowed because it has political implications for the ruling government. If they’re seen as weak, or they’re seen as not being able to provide, that can mobilize the existing tensions, and give a reason for the existing tensions to blossom into something more, so. You can see that that dynamic, that power dynamic that already exists in this country, really can play a big part in how this event develops.

GELLERMAN: In the case of the cyclone in Burma, the Indian meteorological department says that it gave a warning 48 hours in advance that the cyclone was gonna barrel into Burma, and yet now there’s some information that the warning system hadn’t been put in place.

TRAINOR: From a sociological perspective, the warning process, where you go from knowing an event’s going to occur to taking some kind of protective action, has a lot of steps in between. You first receive a warning, you have to understand the warning, you’ve got to believe that’s it’s important, you’ve got to confirm that there’s actually a danger, you’ve got to personalize it, which means the danger actually can apply to you as an individual. You’ve got to determine what to do and then you’ve got to be able to actually do that thing. The warning didn’t get to the people who needed it, and the people weren’t able to take the proper protective action, so what really needs to be looked at is that entire process. It’s not just how people get warnings, whether they get them or not, but the way they process that information to take some kind of action.

GELLERMAN: As a sociologist, when you go to a place that’s been struck by disaster, do you feel a little weird, strange, that you’re not providing direct aid but trying to get a deeper understanding through this academic understanding?

TRAINOR: Absolutely. From the moment you step into a major disaster site, you recognize the real human suffering. And just like anyone else your immediate response is I wish I could do something right here and right now. So the strategy I think that we try to take here is to recognize that the work we’re doing is trying to do a larger scope help. It’s to help these kinds of events in the future, to make sure that the experiences people are having in the here and now are less severe, or, or maybe even at some point don’t occur again, so. As a sociologist that’s kind of take-away that we try to do. We try to help people, and along the way we do, we do feel like we do some good.

Again, in India, there was a community, a fishing community that, people hadn’t actually been to the sea since the tsunami. And we came and we were doing interviews about their experiences and what they thought, and how this event had impacted them. And we walked down to the ocean and they followed us there, so it was the first time – this was a month and a half later – that they’d ever been to the beach since that event originally occurred. And so, you know, that, it’s a minor level of assistance to a small group of people. But again, the hope is that the work we do has broader impacts over time.

GELLERMAN: Joe Trainor is researcher at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Mr. Trainor, thank you very much.

TRAINOR: It’s great to be here.



Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware


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