Preparing for a disaster

Prof. Shirley Laska

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: You know, you go through something often enough, you get pretty good at it. That's happening now down in New Orleans, where Katrina and the oil spill have given folks a certain know-how in dealing with disasters. How to recover from 'em, and in some instances, capitalize on them, too.

Shirley Laska created a program at the University of New Orleans that helps people do just that. Welcome.

Shirley Laska: Nice to be speaking with you.

Ryssdal: You are develop, down there in New Orleans, something of an expertise in disaster recovery, aren't you?

Laska: Yes, regretfully so. What we've been doing is receiving just an amazing number of young people. And they have come, because they want to learn how to assist in a recovery process. They've investigated the various programs in the universities in the city that have been developed to do recovery. And they are registering and becoming graduate students getting degrees from us. Urban studies, urban planning, sociology, all these various degrees that contain recovery information.

Ryssdal: What do they learn though? How does that work?

Laska: They learn how to think about what is necessary in order for a community to be resilient. The resilience is built upon awareness of risk, and developing systematic urban planning, land-use planning, all the various elements that go into making a resilient community.

Ryssdal: And it's a government and private business sort of enterprise, isn't it?

Laska: Oh absolutely. You can't have a recovered community unless you have a business sector that is recovered and recovered more resilient. It's not to build back as it was, but to think about what's necessary, so that the next time you don't have such a sharp dip in capacity.

Ryssdal: And so these students that you have and the young people that are coming to New Orleans, they eventually acquire this academic expertise, they go out and do recovery things in New Orleans and they have this marketable skill that then they can take elsewhere.

Laska: They can, of course we hope they stay for a while.

Ryssdal: Fair enough.

Laska: But they also will go back. They'll go back home, they'll go to other major cities and other areas where their skills will be desired. And I truly hope that the businesses and government agencies will recognize them as having, I would call it "human infrastructure for risk reduction."

Ryssdal: What about this idea of risk that it makes businesses better companies, really, if they can figure out a way to plan for the risks that are involved in the economy today? I mean, these young people you're talking about are going to go out and do that for them.

Laska: They are, because you don't want to separate the risk concept. You want to see them as integrated, so you would, say for example, in this decade you had the 9/11. And companies that learned how to respond to the decline in the economy at that time, also, probably are more resilient today with the recession.

Ryssdal: So what is a successful recovery then?

Laska: It's a recovery in which you believe that you have addressed some of these large issues. When Katrina struck, we said that the disaster revealed the underpinnings of a community that was challenged. Working-class families are challenged for just their basic necessities. It's sort of like a ski resort, where the people who provide the service industry for that ski resort, have to commute an hour or two to trailer parks some place outside of the perimeter. We have to have a working class to support the city. And remember where our culture comes from. Our culture comes to a great extent from the working class, and if we don't have them, we don't have our culture.

Ryssdal: Shirley Laska, she was the founding director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology at the University of New Orleans. Ms. Laska, thanks so much for your time.

Laska: Nice speaking with you.

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