Public Release: 

SHSU faculty to study civilian response during Hurricane Harvey

Sam Houston State University


IMAGE: Natalie D. Baker and Magdalena Denham, assistant professors in the Department of Security Studies at Sam Houston State University, will study civilian response during Hurricane Harvey. view more 

Credit: Harriet McHale

HUNTSVILLE, TX (11/2/17) -- Two faculty members from the Department of Security Studies were awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study civilian response during Hurricane Harvey.

The study, "RAPID: Disaster Preparedness and Response within Communities Affected by Hurricanes," will examine civilian volunteers who participated during the hurricane in the greater Houston region and how homeland security officials can incorporate these responses into communicating and responding to future disasters. The study, funded by NSF's Science, Technology, and Society Program within the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate, will incorporate the personal experience of the faculty members, Natalie D. Baker and Magdalena Denham, who served as volunteers during the disaster, as well as interviews with residents, volunteers, and homeland security officials involved in the response.

"'Get a kit, make a plan, be informed:' This is the standard mantra grounding practice and research related to individual preparedness as an intended direct translation to disaster response," said Baker, an assistant professor. "Continuing to rely on this traditional conceptualization is problematic. Money and human lives/effort is wasted and study of the concept does not help us to anticipate or understand what happens to people--to communities--after hazard events."

During disasters, research has shown the public is generally predisposed to self-organization, and this reaction emerges naturally. This phenomenon has traditionally occurred over the last 100 years and was demonstrated in recent disasters, beginning with the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. However, general homeland security discourses and practices in academia, the media and public perceptions, treat the public as apathetic or even threatening, such as is expressed in the idea that looting is common during disasters.

The purpose of this research is to examine actual experiences in a disaster through a study of those who lived it, including the public who were affected and the institutions that managed the events. "We want to re-think how we conceptualize concepts like preparedness and response, because we believe associated practices marginalize people and put the burden of response on those who are most vulnerable," said Baker. "The point is to uncover why and how this happens."

The study will examine the concept of "swarming," which is a phenomenon that describes the emergent, collective action by civilians to assist others during disasters, such as the "Cajun Navy" or civilian boat rescues seen during Hurricane Harvey. This experience will be captured through personal involvement by the faculty in response and recovery efforts as well as in-depth interviews, observations, and field work with residents and volunteers in the impacted areas. The researchers also will conduct interviews and observations with homeland security officials, including police, fire, medical professionals, public health officials, and members of the military. Finally, the study will conduct focus groups of civilians and officials to help identify specific practices that inhibited response and recovery.

Baker, who began working at Sam Houston State University one day before the hurricane, volunteered in Spring on a flotilla of small boats trying to rescue residents stranded by high water. Her cousin also was caught in floodwaters in Dickinson and later discovered that his husband of 15 years had perished in their Houston home after water was released from the Addicks Reservoir.

"My past research concerns concepts related to issues pertaining to disaster response and preparedness; thus, I thought I knew what to expect," said Baker. "However, experiencing disaster first-hand is very different from theory."

Having experienced assisting with public management of several disasters, including Hurricanes Ike and Rita in the Houston area, Denham volunteered in her community of River Plantation after the area flooded following Hurricane Harvey. She witnessed firsthand multiple problems in the formal response system, including the lack of volunteer reception centers, the ineffective use of spontaneous volunteers, and communication challenges experienced by established response partners and non-governmental organizations.

Denham also realized the powerful vitality of emergence. "I became part of this ephemeral 'swarm' of activity and in the days that followed witnessed unspeakable unity of effort without checklists, schedules, plans, task assignment or credentials," said Denham.


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