Last week, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta sent out an email to the student body expressing the community’s concern for those affected by Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast. “I’m not sure how we can help,” Moneta wrote, “but your family are our extended family.”
While the general sentiment of Moneta’s email is appreciated, it falls short of the University’s responses to other natural disasters in recent years. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Duke launched a broad relief campaign, with everyone from Duke basketball to Duke Student Government helping to raise nearly $40,000. Duke even sent medical relief teams to Haiti to help. Duke also mounted a significant response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For example, Duke initiated a program where employees could be reimbursed for vacation days they used to volunteer in disaster relief.
Obviously, there are important distinctions between Hurricane Sandy and these two other natural disasters. But Hurricane Sandy still presents crucial opportunities for Duke to use its resources and knowledge in service to society. Simply sending our sympathetic regards toward the affected region does not suffice. Our response should not stop at an email.
Admittedly, Duke’s money or manpower might not be of greatest use to Hurricane Sandy survivors at the moment. But Duke can contribute more by starting a serious conversation about climate change to prevent similar disasters in the future. As a major research university, Duke should be on the cutting edge of climate change discourse. As The New Yorker put it, refusing to have a conversation about climate change now is “akin to the insistence that the aftermath of a mass shooting is somehow an improper moment to talk about America’s gun laws.” In short, to not talk about climate change would be perilously irresponsible.
Especially given Duke’s ample expertise—Sanford for public policy, the Nicholas School for the environment and Pratt for engineering—there are obviously abundant intellectual resources to devote to the Hurricane Sandy aftermath, whether in terms of rethinking waterfront development or designing storm barriers. Marshalling public will to find serious ways to address climate change is also a nontrivial task.
Duke has funneled its intellectual resources to natural disasters in the past. After Hurricane Katrina, Duke faculty across multiple schools lent their knowledge to Katrina-specific problems ranging from the dangers of wetland destruction to the racial implications of botched disaster relief. Symposiums galore were held after the Haiti earthquake too. The intellectual work associated Hurricane Sandy has just begun. Although Duke’s own campus was not impacted, we are not exempt from processing the hurricane’s scientific and societal implications.
There is yet another consequence of not engaging with the Hurricane Sandy aftermath. Duke should not ignore the fact that—even in America—natural disasters disproportionately harm the poor. One does not have to look to Port-au-Prince to see this phenomenon—it is readily apparent in New York City. When thinking about helping people, Duke students like to orient themselves internationally. But even a cursory comparison of post-hurricane recovery on the Upper East Side and the Jacob Riis Houses housing project in lower Manhattan will remind Duke students to look a little closer to home.