By Karl Rhodes
Green, associate professor of emergency management, is developing a global database of disasters—everything from hurricanes in Florida to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
“Tsunamis are serial killers with a long record of events extending perhaps as far back as the exodus of the Jews [from] Egypt,” Green says. “The Indian Ocean tsunami following the northern Sumatra earthquake is a particularly good example of how countries with limited or no warning systems are very vulnerable, even today, to natural catastrophes. It also highlights how very vulnerable island nations, such as the Maldives, are to big-wave events, a vulnerability that we can expect to increase as sea levels rise with the current global warming trend.”
Green’s database employs a broad definition of “disasters.” It does not include wars, but it does include terrorist attacks.
“Can I chronicle every bomb that blows up in Iraq?” Green ponders. “No. But I do want a representative sample for disaster managers to learn from. … There really are recipes for disaster, warning signs that people miss.”
Educating disaster managers is what Green and his database are all about. His passion for this emerging academic discipline helped the School of Continuing Studies establish an undergraduate program in emergency services management in 1996, a graduate certificate in 2001 and a master’s program in the fall of 2004. The school offers all of the courses exclusively online.
Asking the right questions
The master of disaster science degree has attracted 14 students in its first year. Since disasters bring out the best and worst in people, the curriculum “covers the entire breadth of human experience,” Green says. “We look at how disasters impact people. We look at the history, the physical characteristics, the social dimensions, the economics, the politics, the legal issues and the role of religion.”
This theoretical approach spurs practical applications for students who already are working in the field, Green explains. “Instead of teaching them—for the 45th time—the principles of emergency management or similar applied material, we teach them how to think about bad events. We teach our students how to ask: ‘What’s happening here? How is it happening? And can we predict it next time?’”
For example, Green insists that people are not asking the right questions about ferry accidents. “A large portion of the world depends on these ferries, and they are damn dangerous,” he says. Several factors contribute to the accidents, but Green’s disaster database indicates that overloading the boats is one common denominator—a serial killer—in many accidents that occur in the developing world.
“People talk about the horrible loss of life on the Titanic,” Green says, “but the sinking of the ferry Dona Paz in the Philippines in 1987 left twice as many dead.”
Green’s disaster database is a teaching tool, not a comprehensive catalog, but he has documented more than 1,200 events, and eventually he wants to log 6,000 to 10,000. The disasters range from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1900 B.C. to the ongoing genocide in the Sudan. The database includes a generous sampling of earthquakes, avalanches, famines and plagues, but it also features “cultural disasters,” such as the destruction of the Grozny Fine Arts Museum in the Chechen Republic in 1995.
During the battle for Grozny, Chechen forces used the museum as a stronghold, according to the database. “Of 3,200 artworks in the collection, only 94 pieces were saved from the museum, some of them so severely damaged that restoration is impossible.”
Touching millions of lives
Green started the disaster database because he “got tired of not being able to remember when something happened,” but his students report that his encyclopedic knowledge of disasters is surpassed only by his impressive teaching abilities.
“Dr. Green is the major reason why I enrolled and why I stay in the program,” says Ellen Black, a public safety services coordinator for Cobb County, Ga. “His credentials, knowledge base and concern for the program and students are incredible. I have learned so much in the four courses I have completed so far, and I truly believe it is helping me become a well-rounded employee.”
Black plans to enroll in the master’s program after she completes the requirements for the graduate certificate. “I have a friend who is enrolled in a distance emergency management program at another institution,” she says, “and it can’t hold a candle to Richmond’s.”
Lauran Wikle, ’02, earned a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management, and she promptly enrolled in the graduate program. “Thanks to Dr. Green, I have a successful career working for the Arizona Governor’s Office of Homeland Security,” she says.
Wikle has managed response and recovery services during disasters that have occurred in Arizona during the past two years, including two fires that burned more than 350,000 acres and displaced several thousand people.
“I greatly attribute the success I have achieved to Dr. Green’s realistic and practical teaching methods in how to approach and manage crises at various levels of complexity and government,” Wikle says. “Dr. Green has touched millions of lives through mentoring students to be effective and efficient emergency management and homeland security leaders across the nation.”
The program’s online format helps it attract students and faculty who are top professionals working anywhere in the country. Another powerful magnet is Green’s growing reputation as the University’s “master of disaster.”
“Walter is an acknowledged expert in the field as a practitioner and is rapidly developing a national reputation as a scholar in the field as well,” says Dr. James L. Narduzzi, dean of the School of Continuing Studies. “Additionally, he is an expert in online delivery, particularly in the high-touch, highly interactive format that we follow.”
The program is growing slowly and steadily, Narduzzi says. “We could speed that up by compromising quality but refuse to do so. For example, we limit class size in online classes to 15.”
Narduzzi gives Green much of the credit for the program’s success. “As Walter’s reputation grows, so will the program,” he says. Prior to joining the University full time in 1999, Green was director of emergency operations for Virginia’s Office of Emergency Medical Services. Before that, he was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, where his last position was deputy director for plans of the Joint Strategic Defense Planning Staff of the United States Space Command.
Virtual emergency management
Green’s interest in disaster management has become more academic, but he remains active in the field with the American Disaster Reserve. He is president of the all-volunteer organization, and he designed its Web site, the Virtual Emergency Operations Center.
During a disaster, the online center serves as an information clearinghouse for relief agencies and people who need help. The site lists hotlines, contacts, agency lists, situation reports and minutes from interagency conference calls.
“The Web site allows groups like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Lutheran Disaster Response, Mennonite Disaster Service and the Humane Society to determine where shortfalls in services exist,” Green says. “It’s a way to ensure that efforts aren’t duplicated.”
Relief agencies used the site heavily last year as multiple hurricanes slammed Florida. “We were down for 15 minutes [during one storm] and fielded several worried calls,” Green says.
Ande Miller, executive director of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, says she did not fully appreciate the power of the Virtual Emergency Operations Center until she saw it in action during the hurricanes.
“We believe that we had one of the best collaborations of disaster relief organizations ever, and a great deal of that was because of Walter and his group and the information sharing they provided,” Miller says. “We had a very positive response from our members, and that’s the highest compliment I can give.”
The benefits of the Virtual Emergency Operations Center extended beyond the hurricanes, she adds. The unprecedented sharing of information during the disasters helped all of the relief organizations gain a better understanding of who does what during major storms.
Green and other volunteers from the American Disaster Reserve “participated in almost all of the conference calls” and quickly generated minutes of the meetings that helped agencies coordinate their efforts, Miller says. Other emergency managers echo Miller’s praise for the American Disaster Reserve, but Green insists that frontline relief workers are the real heroes.
“We’re sort of low key,” he says. “We don’t have people physically on the ground dealing with human misery, so we don’t want people to feel we’ve been out there pulling 18-hour days for 30 days straight. We provide what we think is an important service, but we’re humble about what we do.”
Green might not work 18-hour days, but he stays busy teaching classes, advising students and coordinating disaster relief. In his spare time, he tracks down serial killers as he adds more disasters to his database.
He says he averages “about three disasters per day.” Unfortunately, the list he draws from keeps getting longer.
Learn More Online
For more information about the School of Continuing Studies’ disaster science and emergency management programs, visit http://oncampus.richmond.edu/academics/scs/evening/. The Disaster Database Project is available at http://cygnet.richmond.edu/is/esm/disaster/. To use the Virtual Emergency Operations Center, go to www.virtualeoc.org.