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Members of Virginia's Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue tend to a student they dug out of the rubble three days after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti.
Members of Virginia's Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue tend to a student they dug out of the rubble three days after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Not far behind all those relief workers streaming into Haiti is another group of people: disaster researchers. They're studying how well rescue efforts are working and what can be learned from the response to the Haiti earthquake.
They've gathered at staging posts in places like the Dominican Republic and Florida. Within a few minutes of arriving at the Miami airport, disaster researcher Tricia Wachtendorf found herself working.
"I went to pick up my rental car and asked to speak to a public information officer associated with the airport. I saw some Red Cross vehicles that were under way," says Wachtendorf, associate director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.
She talked to the Red Cross workers, and gathered memos and situation reports that later will help her create a picture of how organizations worked with each other during the response. Later, she headed to a local warehouse to interview more relief workers.
"It's a lot of who, what, where, when and why," says Wachtendorf. "Trying to find out what's going on; which organizations people are working with; [and] to get a sense of what's been going well and where some of the challenges are."
Wachtendorf also has a research team in the Dominican Republic and hopes to get into Haiti soon. She says the goal is to get there in time to still gather good information, but not so soon that researchers interfere with the relief work.
Over the few decades that this academic discipline has been around, it's helped improve disaster response. For example, you're probably aware of all those messages about donating cash instead of food and clothing. That's backed up by information collected in the past by disaster researchers
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A woman receives bedding from the Red Cross in a makeshift camp in the grounds of the Hatian Prime Minister's office in Port-au-Prince on January 21, 2010 . Hundreds of displaced people are living in the park in front of the office after the January 12 earthquake.
A woman receives bedding from the Red Cross in a makeshift camp in the grounds of the Hatian Prime Minister's office in Port-au-Prince on January 21, 2010 . Hundreds of displaced people are living in the park in front of the office after the January 12 earthquake. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
They also help to dispel myths. One is that dead bodies need to be buried quickly to avoid disease. That's just not true. There are also misconceptions about disaster victims — that they're too stunned and traumatized to do anything after an event. Not so, says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
"This is not the real story of disaster," Tierney says.
Actually, Tierney says, most people spring into action. She says more lives are saved by friends and family than by those high-profile international search and rescue teams. That brings up an area of research Tierney says she hopes to pursue in the wake of the Haiti earthquake: whether these "heroic measures to save one life may be interfering with less-heroic measures to save a thousand lives."
"We need to look at the whole international search and rescue picture and learn more about it," Tierney says.
Disaster researchers seem to have a lot more questions than answers. That's because this field of study is still relatively young, according to Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. He says more conclusive research is needed on the most basic questions about how to respond to a disaster and how to prepare for one.
"How much food and water should somebody stockpile in their house in the event of emergency?" Redlener says. "We've been saying three days of food and water, but we don't really know that's the right answer. Under certain circumstances a day is fine, and others we need, maybe, a week's worth."
The National Science Foundation likely will issue grants in the coming months to pay for research in Haiti that could answer some of these questions. And everyone in the field of disaster research hopes that will result in better preparation and response when the next disaster strikes.