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Winter 2005/2006
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


Geographers Respond to Katrina

Doug RichardsonWithin hours of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana, many in the AAG realized that our response needed to go beyond the academic. Although the AAG is neither a government agency nor a disaster relief organization, it was clear that we needed to find ways to help immediately—ways that went beyond the analysis and critique which would surely come later.

With little past history to guide us, the AAG staff began by organizing an online clearinghouse. We wanted to create a means by which departments and individuals in the affected region could send requests for needed items or services and by which they could make contact with each other and with colleagues interested in helping. The AAG also established a special fund which will help rebuild geography programs and assist people in the hardest-hit areas. Very shortly, expressions of support, both moral and tangible, came pouring in from across the U.S. as well as from other countries ranging from France to Mexico.

Now that we are out of the initial emergency phase of this effort, we have shifted the AAG Hurricane Katrina Clearinghouse from a broad-based notification network to an online query and assistance system. I would like to thank all the geographers and GIS users everywhere who have responded, and also particularly the AAG staff, many of whom worked late nights and straight through their Labor Day weekend to create, maintain, and staff the online clearinghouse and communication network during the critical first days of chaos after the storm. Many others also helped us to get the word out about the AAG Hurricane Katrina Clearinghouse. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, Esri, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Council of Learned Societies, and many groups picked up the news of our early effort and made it known far and wide. As a result, similar clearinghouses soon began to appear within other organizations and from other disciplines, often with programs that seemed inspired by the AAG's early actions.

It also has been wonderful to see the high profile of geography and GIS during the past few months. Many in the GIS community helped on the ground with emergency data and services. Other geographers, including Craig Colten, Susan Cutter, Michael Crutcher, Bob Kates, Talbot Brooks, and Stephen Leatherman, to name only a few, published articles or were interviewed in media ranging from the New York Times to NBC News. The AAG also has been contacted by the House Science Committee, which recently held hearings on social science issues related to the Katrina disaster. We have been asked to provide testimony on topics related to the hurricane's destruction and the governmental response to it.

The ability to provide some real help to those most directly impacted by the disaster has been very heartening. One AAG member wrote, "Thank you for your incredible efforts in swiftly structuring the AAG response to the Gulf Coast tragedy. Many of us want to help and the AAG clearinghouse/fund provides a focused way to do so." Another member from the directly affected region added, "I have never been prouder to be a geographer."

Critical to enabling this rapid response had been the behind-the-scenes effort of the past few years to build and strengthen the AAG's internal infrastructure and staffing capacity, including the organization's computer systems, Internet resources, management systems, staff development and training, and financial foundation. Without this strong internal infrastructure in place, it would have been impossible to respond to this emergency so quickly. This same internal capacity now enables the AAG to respond not only to disasters but also to opportunities, effectively and on short notice.

Yet a great deal still remains to be done, for as I write, the recovery phase of hurricanes Katrina and Rita has barely begun. As John Passerello, a senior official with the Salvation Army, notes, opportunities still exist for geographers and GIS professionals to volunteer their services to help victims; donate funds to help geography departments rebuild; assist evacuated students from other colleges and universities; and support local governments and nonprofit emergency response organizations, such as the Red Cross.

There is a rich environment for the field of hazards geography to continue to assist local, state, and federal agencies understand and mitigate disaster threats. There are also questions concerning the long-term regional and economic development in the entire impacted area. What does the future hold for New Orleans; Biloxi and Gulfport; and all the small towns in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama?

How should geographers and the GIS community approach massive rehabilitation of the region? These and other geographic issues and challenges, such as the nature of federal governmental response to this disaster and issues of class, race, and the environment in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, will be the focus of many special sessions at the AAG's upcoming annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois, from March 7–11, 2006. This forum will be an ideal opportunity for the GIS and geography communities to come together to engage these critical issues and formulate effective strategies for helping, both now and in the future. We invite you to participate in this timely process.

Thanks again for your generous support of those affected by these disasters. We will continue to operate the AAG Hurricane Katrina Clearinghouse site throughout the recovery phase of the disaster to assist affected individuals, as well as geography departments in the Gulf region, as necessary in the months ahead. To access the AAG Hurricane Katrina Clearinghouse, or to contribute to the recovery fund, please visit www.aag.org/katrina. Additional donations of materials, books, maps, equipment, services, and funds will be needed to help this region rebuild for the future.

Doug Richardson
drichardson@aag.org

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