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Researchers Await Their Turn In Haiti

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Researchers Await Their Turn In Haiti

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Researchers Await Their Turn In Haiti

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And even as the relief workers pour into Haiti, there's another group of people close behind: disaster researchers. They've already started gathering at staging posts in places like Florida and the Dominican Republic. They're studying how well rescue efforts are working and what can be learned from the response to the Haiti earthquake. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Within just a few minutes of arriving at the Miami airport, disaster researcher Tricia Wachtendorf was already at work.

Professor TRICIA WACHTENDORF (Disaster Researcher, University of Delaware): Actually, 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 underway.

BRADY: Wachtendorf is with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

She talked with 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. After picking up a car, she headed to a local warehouse to interview relief workers.

Prof. WACHTENDORF: It's a lot of who, what, where, when and why, trying to find out what is going on, which organizations people are working with, to get the sense of what's been going well and where some of the challenges are.

BRADY: 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 this academic discipline has been around, it's helped improve disaster response. All those messages about donating cash instead of food and clothing, that's backed up by information collected by disaster researchers.

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, according to Kathleen Tierney at the University of Colorado Natural Hazard Center.

Ms. KATHLEEN TIERNEY (National Hazard Center, University of Colorado, Boulder): They're horrified. They're traumatized. They're helpless. And, you know, someone has got to step in now and do everything for them.

BRADY: Actually, Tierney says, in a disaster, most people spring into action. In fact, 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 hopes to pursue in the wake of the Haiti earthquake.

Ms. TIERNEY: Whether these heroic measures to save one life may be interfering with less-heroic measures to save a thousand lives. And we need to look at the whole international search-and-rescue picture and learn more about it.

BRADY: Talk to disaster researchers, and you'll hear a lot more questions than answers. That's because this field of study is still relatively young, according to Irwin Redlener at Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness. 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.

Mr. IRWIN REDLENER (Director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Columbia University): How much food and water should somebody stockpile in their house in the event of emergency? Now we've been saying three days of food and water, but we don't really know that that's the right answer. Under certain circumstances, a day is fine, and others we need maybe a week's worth.

BRADY: 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.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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