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Institute Gathers Faculty Proposals For Research Aiding Katrina Efforts

By Beckett W. Sterner

With new research efforts, a centralized organizing committee, and a new subject, MIT is taking on the long-term challenges following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Louisiana and Mississippi.

“Ideas have been pouring in from faculty and staff as well, and I have appointed a Katrina Response Advisory Group to help coordinate these efforts,” wrote President Susan Hockfield in an e-mail to MIT’s faculty.

As of Thursday last week, about a dozen faculty had sent in ideas for projects, said Kathryn A. Willmore, vice president of the Corporation and chair of the advisory group.

The advisory group will work to stay informed of Katrina-related activities going on at MIT and will try to facilitate work on educational programs and research initiatives that might come from the faculty, Willmore said.

Holly B. Sweet, Experimental Studies Group associate director and lecturer, said she has formed a study group for undergraduates “to find out more about the city as it was” and as it will be. She said the subject arose from her need to respond to the disaster in her capacity as an educator.

Creating a new class in under a week is typical of the “don’t let red tape get in your way” style of MIT, she said. “There’s something in my MIT style that says ‘nonsense’” when confronted with administrative obstacles. Instead, she said, MIT displayed its “let’s just do it” attitude.

Working from communities up

New research efforts will likely focus on “big questions,” particularly ones that “intersect technology and society,” said Lawrence Vale MS ’88, chair of Urban Studies and Planning and an advisory group member.

Vale said that initial plans for talks or forums should be finalized in the next few days, and the first session may happen as early as next week.

Three Urban Studies professors are already considering how to address the easily neglected needs and opinions of the communities shattered by Hurricane Katrina.

“A real concern is to make sure that the folks on the ground that have been affected by this … are actively engaged in the efforts to rebuild,” especially for minorities and the poor, said Professor Ceasar L. McDowell.

McDowell said one possible idea was to establish a “citizens’ commission” from the New Orleans diaspora that would speak for the people’s interest rather than for the government or private business.

MIT may have the greatest opportunity to make a difference at the community level, said Professor J. Phillip Thompson. This could be a place “where this country begins to address the problem of inequality.” Effective community organizing could affect lobbying efforts, Thompson said. “A lot of the people who are jumping on to this … don’t have a vision — they just see dollars.”

Another challenge is coordinating action between community members dispersed into multiple states. “Organizing often, if not always, assumes some kind of concentration,” said Professor Xavier de Souza Briggs.

PSC prepares for long term effort

After sending five students to Sri Lanka last summer to assist with reconstruction after the tsunami last year, the Public Service Center is now fundraising for a similar effort in New Orleans, said Director Sally Susnowitz.

The scale of the effort “depends a great deal on what we collect,” she said. The PSC is currently collecting money for three different funds: the American Red Cross, charities local to the affected area, and public service fellowships.

Susnowitz said that the PSC had been planning a 10-year window for tsunami aid efforts, and that they were now exploring what MIT students could bring to evaluation reconstruction efforts.

“I think we’re in here for the long haul,” Susnowitz said. Ultimately, though, the PSC’s efforts are dependent on students’ level of interest. The guiding question will be “what do they bring in particular as MIT students,” she said.

One scenario for what students might do in a fellowship over the Independent Activities Period would be to teach a community how to use donated equipment to test water quality, a useful long-term skill during reconstruction.

The Public Service Center is trying to do is facilitate the contributions of MIT students, Susnowitz said.