Still causing waves

Dr. Graham A. Tobin was about to return from Ecuador when he first heard about Hurricane Charley. Over the summer, he had been studying the effects of Tungurahua, a volcano that has been erupting for the last five years, continually dumping ash on surrounding villages.

“I went from one disaster to another,” he said.

With the effects of a disaster hitting so close to home, he immediately saw opportunity for a new class, he said. He notified teachers and students who he thought would be interested and posted flyers advertising a new graduate-level class aimed at studying the impacts of Charley.

And so, days before the semester began, a class was born: Hurricane Charley: The Aftermath.

The class set out to study and find ways to better prepare for hurricanes.

“This is a human problem, not an act of God or gods,” he said. “It is a failure of society to recognize that we live in a hazardous environment and fail to plan accordingly.”

The first step is to formulate questions that the class will later research. What Tobin wants to focus on is the web of social, economic and political effects of Charley. Without a clear understanding of these things, we can never hope to reduce loss in a disaster, he said.

“One aspect is to look at the social vulnerability,” he said.

Will snowbirds return to Florida after their mobile homes have been demolished? And if not, what will be the impact? This is just an example of the questions he and students hope to answer. Throughout the semester, students will narrow down the research questions and travel to areas with severe damage, like Punta Gorda.

“By December we hope to have a technical report with our findings,” he said.

Clay Kelsey, one of the five graduate students in the class, is particularly interested in studying the critical facilities that were destroyed in the hurricane. An entire hospital was destroyed in Punta Gorda, he said, along with several fire and emergency rescue stations. Kelsey said seeing the effect of a hurricane is something he won’t get used to anytime soon.

“I’ve never been in a hurricane before; the physical power is just incredible,” he said.

Another student, Heather Bell, realizes the horrible impact of Charley, but also sees the opportunities that their research could lead to.

“It is the hands-on experience, more practice in field work and the possible improvement to response” that she said she looks forward to.

A regret of Tobins’ is the amount of students involved in the class. If given the time to better prepare, he would have liked to incorporate undergraduate students. But the class is a rubric for future classes and could possibly spurn the creation of more courses on hurricanes, he said.

“It could very easily lead to more courses. The impact will last longer than December,” he said.