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Panelists discussing the history of disaster research are (from left) Thomas Drabek, professor emeritus at the University of Denver and the first graduate student hired by the DRC in 1963; Havidan Rodriguez of the University of Texas-Pan American; Dennis Wenger of the NSF; and Tricia Wachtendorf, associate DRC director.
When researchers received federal funding
to establish the nation’s first center devoted to the social scientific
study of disasters, they were truly starting from scratch, facing such
questions as what the center would be named, who should direct it and
even how to define “disaster.”
That was in 1963, and this month the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center
(DRC) marked its 50th anniversary with a celebration and conference on
campus that was attended by many of its earliest pioneers.
years, the center’s researchers came to establish much of the basis for
the field of disaster research, conducting some 700 field studies in the
U.S. and around the world in communities devastated by natural and
“This is a relatively young field, and it’s still evolving,” sociologist Havidán Rodríguez
told those attending the May 1 session of the conference.
scholarly impact of the researchers at DRC is amazing” and includes a
global network the center has established. Rodríguez, who is
provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of
Texas-Pan American, was previously deputy provost at UD, where he
directed the DRC for seven years.
On display at the conference was a timeline, detailing in words and
photos some of the disasters to which DRC researchers have responded
over the years, ranging from a 1963 propane explosion that killed 74
people at the Indiana State Fairground Coliseum, to last year’s tornado
that virtually destroyed Moore, Oklahoma.
In the years between were such
events as factory explosions, civil disturbances including the 1970
shootings at Kent State University, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake,
the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Russell Dynes, Disaster Research Center founding director and a pioneer in the field, speaks at the conference. At right is James Kendra, current DRC director.
The conference also honored the work of DRC founders Russell Dynes
and Enrico (Henry) Quarantelli, both now professors emeriti of sociology
at UD. Dynes attended the workshop and recalled the center’s beginnings
at Ohio State University (it moved to Delaware in 1985) when the
National Science Foundation — after initially rejecting the researchers’
proposal — unexpectedly called them to Washington and agreed to fund
the center for five years.
“On the plane on the way home, we named the center and appointed
ourselves as co-directors,” said Dynes, who received a standing ovation
from the conference audience. “And that’s how we started.”
Also speaking at the workshop session was Dennis Wenger, a program
director for the National Science Foundation (NSF), a disaster researcher for
more than 40 years and a former UD faculty member who co-directed the
DRC from 1984-89. He praised the work of Dynes and Quarantelli, calling
their influence as researchers and mentors “profound.”
“Henry and Russ are the reason we all are here,” Wenger said. “Henry is, and will always be, the ‘master of disaster.’”
He described the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of disaster
research, beginning with a social science focus and expanding in the
1980s to include engineering and, more recently, the physical sciences.
Emerging next, Wenger said, appear to be the humanities, with the study
of science, technology and society “the next frontier” for disaster
The conference, titled “Taking Stock and Taking Action: Disaster
Research and the Challenges Ahead,” worked to map out paths for future
research, particularly in the light of environmental concerns.