The Role of Colleges in Disaster Relief: Why and How Institutions Should Be More Involved

Article excerpt

WHEN THE CEDAR RIVER crested at over 19 feet in June 2008, hundreds of residents of Waverly, Iowa, were forced to evacuate their homes and seek shelter. The city, facing the most devastating natural disaster in the county's history, found much needed support and assistance from Wartburg College.

Sustaining only minor damage to campus, the college partnered with the American Red Cross to host the organization's disaster assistance center and shelter more than 50 displaced people for nearly a month. The college community responded with more than 15,000 hours of volunteer service, also contributing financially to fundraisers and benefit concerts. The college's Center for Community Engagement coordinated volunteer efforts and provided leadership in the creation and operation of the long-term community recovery coalition.

Unfortunately, our college's experience with natural disasters is far from unique. As we've seen in places like North Dakota, California, and Minnesota, natural disasters are a reality for which all campuses need to be prepared.

Yet until recently, preparation for most colleges has meant identifying ways they could secure themselves in response to disaster. While necessary, that is not enough. Colleges need to play a more significant role in the process of community-wide disaster preparedness and recovery. We have a particular set of strengths and assets that are well suited to assist, and sometimes lead, the disaster preparedness and relief processes. This engagement also is an opportunity for our students to participate and learn.

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COMMUNITY PARTNERS

Those in the business of disaster response have well-defined roles in the recovery process. For example, after our local first responders and the American Red Cross provided immediate security and relief, national disaster response organizations quickly came to our aid. Nechama, the Jewish community's disaster response organization, coordinated and assisted with the cleanup process. Lutheran Disaster Response provided a pool of regional and national volunteers. The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee conducted door-to-door assessments that estimated the unmet needs of those in our community.

While these organizations were providing the hands to get the work done in our community, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and our local disaster responders helped prepare for the lengthy road of recovery ahead.

The effectiveness of the recovery process hinges on one factor--quality, organized, local partners. Who can access local volunteers? Where are central meeting locations? Who are the leaders in the community, and who can bring them together? Who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to practices of justice? Who has the technical expertise to create systems for communication and coordination?

The disaster recovery process requires local partners that are organized, agile, responsive, and resourceful. …