Katrina stirs up flurry of class discussions

Hurricane Katrina cut a wide swath across the Gulf Coast but, if WSU is any indication, the storm is cutting an even wider swath through college classrooms across the country, where Katrina is providing “teachable moments” in discussions ranging from geology to government, from power grids to power structures. Consider nursing, educational policy, construction management or broadcasting: it’s nearly impossible to find a discipline that can’t look to Katrina for curricular connections.

“Any time there is a disaster, it goes right into my class,” said Steven Stehr, chair of the political science department. Stehr, who is writing a book on disaster relief in America, said students in his honors “Introduction to American History” class have been talking quite a bit about “bedrock American values” in the context of the disaster and disaster assistance.

Rick Gill, assistant professor of environmental science and regional planning, scrapped his lecture notes after Katrina hit and instead talked about the climate conditions that give rise to hurricanes. In discussions since, he’s talked about policy decisions that have allowed coastal forests to be cleared and wetlands to be paved.

“Not only do we have fiercer storms coming,” he said, “but we have eliminated the natural barriers to block them.”

Ed Weber, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at WSU, said he and his graduate students have been discussing political agendas and what kind of event is most likely to trigger a change in public policy. Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan? Not so much, he said, but Katrina likely will.

“I think we will see changes in public policy that affect where people settle,” he said. Rebuilding New Orleans might not be rational from an environmental perspective, he said, but it probably is from an economic or political perspective.

”I suspect we will simply rebuild it and pray it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

That kind of denial -— the denial that allowed people to ignore dire, and accurate, predictions of levee breaks pre-Katrina — has been part of the discussion in professor Gene Rosa’s Sociology 430 seminar “Society and Technology.”

“Katrina was a probabilistic event,” Rosa said. “When you have a probabilistic event is very uncertain. It will occur, but you don’t know when.”

Rosa and his students have been talking about how difficult it is to muster the political will to prepare for such an event, he said.

Assistant professor Nella Van Dyke, along with many of her colleagues in the sociology department, has been talking with her students about the ways in which Katrina has exposed poverty and race and class divisions in America. Van Dyke, who studies social movements, said she’s not sure whether the Katrina disaster will trigger a major social upheaval.

“If the public really gets behind the issue it could happen,” she said, “but I don’t think you could say, of course it’s going to happen.”

While social movements are sometimes difficult to predict, geologic movements are less so. David Gaylord, professor of geology, said the Hurricane Katrina disaster has been an “absolutely” teachable moment in his class.While most faculty are following the disaster from afar, Dan Dolan, professor of civil engineering, traveled to the Gulf Coast last week to survey the damage up close. A consultant for the Institute for Home and Business Safety and an expert in wind loading and building codes, Dolan traversed the coast from Florida to Louisiana investigating damage to buildings caused by the high winds.

For the most part, he said, buildings built in the last 15 to 20 years fared fairly well, while most older buildings didn’t.

“We may be close to where we should be with our building codes,” he said, “… finally.”

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