Lava, Quakes and Tsunamis? 'Disaster University' Takes Shape ; U.S. and Asia Academics Create a Network, with Indonesia as Main Focus

Article excerpt

The University of Hawaii is working with Asian institutions to create a field of study that covers all aspects of natural disasters. Indonesia has been chosen as the focus country.

The Asia-Pacific may be the biggest driver of the global economy, but it is also the runaway leader in a category that no region would covet: natural disasters.

Between 2001 and 2010, the Asia-Pacific had the most natural disasters, along with the highest number of deaths and the biggest economic losses resulting from them, of any area in the world. On average, more than 200 million people in the region were affected per year by natural disasters during that span, including more than 70,000 killed annually, according to a 2011 report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Economic losses from disasters are significant. In 2011, the region suffered $294 billion in losses, or 80 percent of the total worldwide, because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and floods in Southeast Asia, according to a U.N. report.

The National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii has become one of the forerunners in seeking solutions for the region. The university is the main academic member of the Asia-Pacific Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience, or A.P.D.R.3, network, which grew out of the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Honolulu, hosted by President Barack Obama.

The university is also involved in an initiative to create a new field of study that covers all aspects of natural disasters, an issue that was discussed in June at the A.P.R.D.3 symposium in Yogyakarta, an Indonesian city that is susceptible to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and lava flows from Mount Merapi, an active volcano.

Academics from the United States, Japan and Indonesia are now collaborating on a way to create an academic network that they are calling "Disaster University." "Something like 80 percent of disasters over the last couple of decades have been in the Asia- Pacific, and one of the problems is we've been in response mode and recovery mode, and not in preparation mode," said M.R.C. Greenwood, president of the University of Hawaii. "It became clear that people have to be trained differently, and somebody has to create this new field of disaster resilience, not just disaster management and disaster preparation."

For example, Tohoku University in Japan, which is working with the University of Hawaii, does not have courses covering the psychological and behavioral management side of disaster response. "They're great engineers -- they're great at clearing the roads," Dr. Greenwood said. "But what they really did not have is a program in their university for training people how to manage the trauma, how to rebuild their lives -- not just their buildings but their lives."

The University of Hawaii chose Indonesia as the focus country for the Disaster University initiative and is working with Gadjah Mada University and the Islamic University of Indonesia, both of which are located in Yogyakarta.

Maya Soetoro-Ng, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii and Mr. Obama's half-sister, is involved in the A. …

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