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Disaster 101

In the emergency response to Katrina, some college students see their future.


"What does mandatory evacuation mean?" Benjamin Colbert asks. "Like, people don't leave. … I mean, it puts everyone's life in danger, and there's no repercussions. They just get to hang out until a helicopter comes to pick them up."

Perhaps an oversimplification. Parrish interjects. There's not much that can be done, he says. "Those that stay behind, they're on their own."

Some Katrina "refugees" are refusing to board cruise ships chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as temporary shelters, another student says. "You can't really help somebody who's not wanting to help themselves," he says.

Well, their reluctance is understandable, Parrish answers. "Anybody ever been on a cruise ship?" A few dozen raise their hands. "Was it fun? Pretty nice? Now, to live on it for six months — with a lot of other people."

Parrish, a 28-year veteran of the Marine Corps and former high-ranking official with the Department of Homeland Security, is grooming VCU students for a career dealing with disaster.

His class discussion Sept. 6 is far different from ordinary isn't-it-terrible chatter about the horrors of the hurricane. Parrish encourages his students to question news-media accounts of what went wrong. Which is more important to analyze, he asks — looting or long-term recovery? He discusses the structure and history of FEMA and the proper way to organize an emergency planning drill. Students listen intently. One day, the lessons learned could save lives.

VCU won approval from the state in the spring for an undergraduate program in homeland security and emergency preparedness, making it the nation's only major research university to offer such a program.

It couldn't have come at a better time. As the country only begins to wade through the federal government's response to what many are calling the worst national disaster in U.S. history, much of the focus has shifted to the structure of FEMA and its role within the Department of Homeland Security. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, some federal authorities think the decision to roll FEMA into the department and the shift in focus on terrorism undercut its ability to respond to natural disasters such as Katrina. Is it saving lives or not?

Students rushed to sign up for the new classes. "All our courses are filled, and we've been passing out overrides like candy," says Associate Professor and Program Co-coordinator Bill Newmann, referring to the passes that allow students to enroll in already-full classes.

Thus far, 205 students have enrolled in the four courses offered this semester, including 75 in the introductory course taught by Parrish, the program's other coordinator. About 15 have chosen homeland security/emergency preparedness as their major.

"A lot of them want to get involved," Newmann says. "They remember 9/11, and I think it's analogous to people signing up for the military after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor."

One of these is Colbert, a 20-year-old sophomore who has chosen the major to prepare for a career with the U.S. Coast Guard. "It's become glamorized, I guess," he says of the field. What Parrish's class teaches, he says, is that homeland security isn't just about terrorism. "We've gone over very little al-Qaida this and terrorism that," he says. "Homeland security is also fires in the West and hurricanes in the East and tornadoes in the Midwest," he adds.

Colbert already knows the work will be tough. As a marine-science technician with the Coast Guard, he has been trained to clean up oil spills and hazardous chemical spills. He's watching the efforts in the Gulf Coast area with interest and points out that sometimes the presence of heavily outfitted emergency personnel may make the situation seem worse than it is. "When you see people walking through New Orleans with full suits and masks on and breathing apparatus and detectors, your first thought is to panic," he says. Sometimes, "what you need for the situation is not what you're given."

Other students in Newmann's and Parrish's classes want to be FBI agents, CIA operatives, disaster workers and security experts. Most think they'll work in state or federal government, Parrish says, but he reminds them of the vast opportunities in the field of corporate security. Unfortunately, he says, concerns about terrorism make security a highly marketable profession.

Parrish plans to give the students hands-on experience as well by arranging for them to volunteer at the state's emergency operations center and role-play as anthrax-exposed postal workers for an upcoming disaster drill in Richmond.

Newmann, a professor of international relations and foreign policy who has researched guerrilla warfare, says he's wanted to teach a course on terrorism for years. No one was interested, he says, until terrorism abruptly became more than an abstraction.

In his class, HSEP 301, Newmann teaches his students that terrorism has existed for as long as humans have engaged in war. But just because an act is vile doesn't mean it's terrorism, he says. A terrorist group, most academics agree, must a) have a political agenda, b) use violence to further that agenda, c) deliberately target civilians and d) seek publicity for their actions.

Using that definition, Newmann says, Vikings — despite the rabid fear their village-sacking caused — don't qualify as terrorists. Palestinian suicide bombings qualify, he says, while the Israeli government's retaliations do not. This is a college campus, however. Not all students take Newmann's teachings as gospel. The class has "some pretty good debates," he says.

A few students, Newmann has heard, don't think VCU should be teaching this sort of course at all. Some believe terrorism is caused by "the U.S. government doing horrible things," he says; others feel their civil liberties have been breached in the name of thwarting terrorists. Students who hold these beliefs, Newmann says, would probably benefit from a little Homeland Security 101.

But, he notes, "those people don't take the class." S

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