Background: Retreiving the Wisdom of Those in Need

Submitted by Paul Born on March 1, 2011 - 2:07pm

I prepared this collection of blogs and resources, archived here as a five-part series, for discussion by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Fetzer Institute. The nature of this research is not to answer the questions posed but to provide context and background to support the reader’s own inquiry.

The focus is on three broad areas of inquiry: Peaceful Society, Technology and Community Engagement, and Community Participation and Governance in times of disaster. These three areas provide the technical aspect of the inquiry. Further to this is the broader inquiry implied in the title, Retrieving the Wisdom of Those in Need, which speaks to the sense that there is an intuitive wisdom, an innate energy and talent that can be accessed through community engagement.

This is the first of five sections:

I.    Background
II.    Peaceful Society
III.    Technology and Community Engagement
IV.    Community Participation and Governance
V.    Conclusions

Download the complete series.


By engaging people (retrieving the wisdom of those in need) and preparing communities for disaster, we can make a huge difference in mitigating the loss of human life during an event, helping to stabilize the region during the critical days after the event, and preparing the human capital needed to rebuild the infrastructure and spirit of an area (healing). Thus moderating the longer-term effects of a disaster.

Blog 1: 1000 Buses Waiting to Help

In August of 2005, a Hurricane struck New Orleans. This disaster captured our hearts and evoked a massive empathy in the world for the plight of those in need. But it was a single picture – that of 1,000 buses parked in neat rows – published as the flooding recessed, that turned staff of the Tamarack Institute from passive observers to passionate and engaged researchers/writers contemplating how we might use community engagement strategies in times of disaster. These buses represented to us everything that was wrong with the formal response in the critical hours of the disaster and the days that followed. Trained and committed people are great assets during times of disaster. To not engage them is akin to forgetting to add the cement to the sand and gravel when building the foundation of a house.

Further Reading:

Complimentary research conducted by the World Bank.

Blog 2: Hurricane Katrina -  The Tamarack Story.

Prior to, during, and immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August, 2005, staff at the Tamarack office focused on the community engagement aspects related to community preparedness for the storm. We monitored news reports of the disaster and were mesmerized.

Rows of yellow buses
Several days after the storm a picture appeared in the news of a sea of buses that had been completely submerged in the flood. As the waters receded, a thousand bright roofs of school buses, like rows of yellow dominoes, appeared above the surface. At Tamarack, we looked at this picture in disbelief, asking each other how a thousand school buses could be left in place when so many people had trouble evacuating the city? We wondered who had made the decision to leave them there and not use them in the evacuation?

Our questions prompted us to read the New Orleans Emergency Preparedness Plan for answers, and to see if there were other communities in the world with preparedness plans that might have deployed those buses.

Over the next several days, these questions emerged for our team:
•    If people were engaged – had a role to play, knew what to do, were part of a team – would this have made a difference? Would those buses have been deployed to help people?
•    Who “owned” the Emergency Preparedness Plan? Who’s job was it to see it implemented?
•    What preparations were made? Were citizens engaged? What about the bus drivers?
•    How prepared are we? What’s my emergency preparedness plan?
•    How much can government do alone? What do citizens do?
•    Why do citizens become criminals?
•    What role do factors like demographic makeup of the population/geographic layout play in emergency preparedness?
•    Are some countries more effective than others at emergency preparedness?
•    What role does formal/informal leadership play?
•    Are there models/stories/resources we can share?


Blog 3: 
Why this really matters
An Oxfam report released in 2007 states that the number of weather related disasters have quadrupled in the last 25 years. The number of people affected by disasters has risen by 68 percent, from an average of 174 million a year between 1985 and 1994, to 254 million a year between 1995 and 2004. Many scientists are predicting that such disasters will become ever more prevalent.  These natural disasters will be most devastating in larger urban centers (especially in coastal cities) where many people have arrived from rural areas, often due to famine or war, to cities that are ill equipped to welcome them. This mass migration has resulted in millions of people living without family support in sub standard housing and deep poverty in cities unable to support them. This combination makes them especially vulnerable in times of disaster.

Further Reading:
City’s Balance Undone in Many Ways: This New York Times article describes the events in New Orleans immediately after the hurricane and what went wrong during emergency operations in a city of nearly 500,000 people. At one point in the article, Brian Wolshon, an LSU civil engineering professor, states that New Orleans relied almost exclusively on a “Good Samaritan” plan, where citizens check on elderly and disabled neighbors and assist them in evacuation if necessary. Download the pdf.

Charter for Community Engagement: This document, created by the Queensland Government Department of Emergency Services (Brisbane, Australia, describes the role community engagement principles play in emergency preparedness. It is one of the best and easiest to useguides to community engagement and emergency preparedness that exists on the web. The document argues that better solutions result when communities and government are engaged in information sharing and discusses this theme in the context of the Queensland Government’s Department of Emergency Services Community Engagement Unit. Download the pdf.