Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Katrina forum offers faculty perspectives on disaster

Members of the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences hosted a campus-wide forum on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Thursday for faculty, staff and students interested in the wide-ranging ramifications of the Gulf Coast catastrophe.

Representatives from the political science, sociology, earth and environmental sciences, English, and civil and environmental engineering departments presented divergent views on the event, ranging from the role of government in protecting its citizens to the potential for future environmental catastrophes.

The panel and discussion afterward was moderated by Hannah Stewart-Gambino, professor of political science and director of Lehigh’s Global Citizenship program.

“This event grew out of four faculty members from several different departments running into each other in Maginnes Hall last week and starting up an animated conversation about various ramifications,” Stewart-Gambino said. “The idea came from the realization that, in addition to very important philanthropic contributions that a university can organize and contribute, a university is also uniquely able to bring to bear a very wide range of knowledge and perspective that is absolutely necessary for analyzing what went wrong, and perhaps more importantly, constructing a deliberate and considered future.”

Ted Morgan, professor of political science, chronicled the dominant political ideology, embraced by both parties over the past half century, that led to the failure of the government to properly respond to the tragedy.

“Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of the notion that government was the problem, and the market is the solution,” Morgan said. “That’s why we’ve had (this tragedy). We’ve not had a positive sense of what the government can do for decades.”

Offering similar comments about a weak and disorganized response or misplaced governmental priorities were Anne Meltzer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Margaret Hagerman, a sociology graduate student representing Heather Johnson, assistant professor of sociology; Addison Bross, professor of English; Breena Holland, assistant professor of political science; and Al Wurth, associate professor of political science.

“The idea seems to be,” Wurth said, “that we can now actively abandon the poor instead of just neglecting them.”

What we can learn

The nearly 70 attendees at the forum heard a variety of predictions about future catastrophes that could prove equally devastating, such as volcanic eruption in the Northwest or an earthquake along the New Madrid fault in the Midwest.

“We need to look at what we could learn from this, and how we could prevent a similar disaster from happening again,” said Joan Ramage, assistant professor of earth and environmental science.

Steve Peters, assistant professor of earth and environmental science, added that the depth of the environmental impact has yet to be explored.

“We’ve only seen the beginning of this,” Peters said. “Once the water is drained from the bowl, we might see zero oxygen levels in the water. We’ll see fish kills, in addition to other ripple effects.”

Despite the dire predictions, Frank Pazzaglia, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, did see a silver lining.

“We do have an opportunity here, and that is the chance to create a new city in the post-industrial, post-fossil fuel era,” he said.

For Kate Crassons, assistant professor of English, the topic wasn’t merely academic.

Crassons, whose expertise lies in social issues and poverty in the Middle Ages, is from New Orleans, and still has family members in the area whose lives were deeply affected by Hurricane Katrina.

“All this storm did was make visible the deeply disturbing problems in this country that we’d like to think are invisible,” she said, as she held up the front page of a recent edition of USA Today that showed the now-devastated street that her parents lived on. “These events show that the government clearly doesn’t care about the most vulnerable people it is supposed to protect.”

And, despite the enormously troubling environmental problems yet to be fully realized, she said, “we need to remember there are actually people there.”

For more on how the Lehigh community is responding to Hurricane Katrina, click here

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Friday, September 09, 2005

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