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Abandoned Responsibility

MIT...s Response to Hurricane Katrina Was Half-Hearted

Hector H. Hernandez

“Established for Advancement and Development of Science, its Application to Industry, the Arts, Agriculture and Commerce.”

Lobby 7 Dome, MIT

MIT has a long history of providing leadership and practical solutions when faced with issues of national importance. Individuals like Vannevar Bush EGD ’16, Karl T. Compton, James R. Killian ’29, and Julius A. Stratton ’23 articulated in both writing and speech the perils of their day and proposed scientific solutions to those perils. Reviewing recent events, I found missed opportunities for putting forth such solutions.

I am going to limit myself to one incident: the response to Hurricane Katrina. MIT had an opportunity (some would say obligation) to respond, but the Institute’s limited and befuddled efforts left me scratching my head in wonder. I could only ask myself who was responsible.

MIT joined many other academic institutions across North America in extending enrollment to qualified students displaced by the hurricane. The Sept. 6, 2005 issue of The Tech included several articles and editorials concerning the disaster. An opinion column by Barun Singh [“Disgust in the Aftermath of Katrina”] presented a grim and moving recapitulation of the downward spiral taken by the New Orleans community in the aftermath of the hurricane. An editorial [“Rebuilding a City”] presented the MIT response in some detail but noted its inadequacy.

The Institute’s response to the crisis to date is a list of interested professors, a set of lectures, a Web site, and fundraisers. This response is abysmal from an organization with the intellectual resources, social conscience, and physical stamina of MIT. Although the lectures were informative and brought academic leaders in respective fields together to explain the history and development of the disaster in New Orleans, they did not provide the devastated community with a road map to recovery.

MIT’s alumni and professors are recognized leaders in civil and environmental engineering, urban development and community planning, management, political science, and many other crucial areas of expertise that were needed at the time. MIT also has a young army of students who have technological savvy and feel the social responsibility of their knowledge. What a golden opportunity this could have been for the Institute to show its character and strength in the face of adversity. Think about the impact that MIT could have made if an individual had taken the reins and brought together these members of our community to discuss, propose, and then implement a plan that offered an integrated social, economic, and engineering solution to the devastation which befell New Orleans.

Alas, time has passed and with it MIT’s opportunity for a wider response. Now we can only read news stories about how the majority of the New Orleans population will not return home. The feats of engineering and science, which were once hailed as saviors of the city, will only be remembered as the bulwarks whose flaws contributed to its destruction. We do not want future generations to think this example of our level of involvement in the national community is acceptable.

I hope we can find qualified and dedicated leaders who will assure MIT’s important role in setting the standard for engineering and scientific endeavors. The world needs the leaders at MIT to again take a stand and help forge the future.