Academic Institutions Have a Strong Role to Play in Disaster Response

October 20, 2022 | 1:45 pm
Students in a lecture hall raising their handsEdwin Andrade/Unsplash
Dr. Cecilio Ortiz Garcia and Dr. Marla Perez-Lugo

In a recent piece, University of Albany’s President, Dr. Havidán Rodriguez, stated that, “higher education can and should play a critical role in enhancing our understanding of disaster vulnerability, resiliency, mitigation, response, and recovery, and how to address these issues in order to mitigate the impacts of these events on communities across the world.” He is echoing the lessons learned during the RISE Conference held on his campus in 2019, where more than five hundred academics, community members and government officials met to discuss the role of universities in disasters. Since then, RISE has become an interdisciplinary and interuniversity collaborative network that not only responds to disasters but also gets involved in policy processes that have an impact on the vulnerability and resilience of our communities.

The RISE Network models a decentralized post-disaster response

Today, our thoughts and prayers are with our colleagues from the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Florida, among other places, because of the catastrophic impact of Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. Many of our network collaborators, local and national NGOs and community leaders and organizations have connected to the RISE Network Fiona Communication and Coordination Platform in the advent of Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. This humble effort is indicative of our commitment to keep the promise of a strong polycentric, decentralized RISE Network flame alive.

It’s hard for people to imagine the quantity and quality of useful contacts, information, resources, and actionable solutions that emerge from this simple tool. We are soliciting and channeling donations for generators, food, general supplies, and are using a series of vetted reputable organizations. We have seen the continued support of leaders like President of the University of Minnesota. She just dispatched a contingent of physicians to the island to assist in the delivery of much needed medical resources to Puerto Rico after Fiona.

Other key RISE partners continue their work on modular emergency housing construction and design and energy governance issues. The dedicated support of members of several legal clinics: the University of Buffalo, the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Pittsburgh. The special contributions of not only Dr. Rodriguez but also President Velez Arocho at Pontifical Catholic University in Puerto Rico tells us that there is no marching back to the times of siloed, fragmented agendas or politically motivated initiatives. But we need to increase the participation in this time of need for Puerto Rico and our colleagues of the universities in Florida.

Universities and communities can build a more just, resilient response to disasters

We can no longer claim ignorance in the face of existent vulnerabilities and resources in our learning landscapes, which include the multi-sector-multi-disciplinary, multi-level, multi-perspective universe our institutions of higher learning co-exist with today. In fact, some of the basic premises that unify the work of RISE members are the following:

  1. Universities need not be passive, centralized, bureaucratic and disciplinarily fragmented repositories of knowledge. In fact, universities are uniquely positioned to serve as resiliency hubs both locally and to the multiple communities they are connected with geographically, diasporically, psychologically, culturally and socio-politically. On issues such as energy transitions; food; energy, and water nexus; justice and security issues; and just sustainable futures, communities of interest can become communities of practice through collaborative convergence platform creation. These can more effectively integrate the multiple perspectives necessary to deal with extreme operating conditions as wicked problems, with normal and post normal science, in extended peer communities across the nation.
  2. Communities are not static recipients of aid. They should play a role from a place of heterarchical respect and in a collaborative approach be the ones leading the adaptation and learning processes, the co-production of knowledge co-visualizing just sustainable futures. These processes can only be facilitated and enhanced by resource-based approaches, not needs-based, asymmetric, unidirectional, capacity building, colonially extractive engagement methods that keep university-community relations and other agencies operating from a state of ignorance. These relational innovations need to extend to other vulnerable populations like students as possible climate refugees. Being at the center of who we are and what we do, they can’t just be treated as customers, ignoring their voices as valued members of our community of scholars and yet still in need to be given proper physical and mental health support in these extreme environments.
  3. We need a new architecture of relationships that is non episodic, or project based, heterarchical and collaborative in its foundation, that looks to leave behind the colonial extraction of parachuting and storm chasing paradigms and embraces the creation of a “meso net of radars” system to create a close-knit extended peer community that leaves “no blind spots”. This needs to become engrained in a Code for University–Community Pre and Post Disaster Ethics so desperately needed and which several groups have already started to craft much to our collective benefit.

Let’s create response plans before the next disaster arrives

We need pre-established “Anti Disaster Agendas,” based on the convergence of knowledge, science, technology, and community wisdom to be presented to the Federal Emergency Management Agency before arriving to an impacted terrain. These agendas should include Just Sustainable visualizations scientifically translated without jargon and need to be collaboratively co-created with those who are suffering and those who are studying some of the vulnerabilities that make our communities “anti-resilient”. These valued activities, living documents, and catalysts need to be ready BEFORE extreme events show their ugly face. Rapid Response Teams then can be ready at short notice not to extract information for your next academic article, but to offer technical assistance to communities in collaboration with local partners.

We believe President Rodriguez’s piece is a call to action. And how apt it is for the call to come from Albany, where in 2019 alliances were forged, relationships were created, and our future as a Network was deliberated by those who sincerely wanted to play a role in making a difference.

We urge you to join us by renewing the commitment to become a node of trusted interconnection in the RISE Network. We invite you to carve a space in your professional agenda to connect, share and help in the operation of this Collaboratory. Please do so by entering your info at

Cecilio Ortiz Garcia is Chair and professor of Public Affairs and Security Studies at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley. His work revolves around energy transitions and the governance of sociotechnical systems.

Dr. Marla Perez-Lugo holds a PhD in Environmental Sociology from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She is currently a professor of sociology and disaster studies at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.