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Report Focuses on Research Aimed at Using Technology to Make America’s Disadvantaged and Vulnerable Populations More Resilient to Disasters

March 16, 2009

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—Natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, and the threat of terrorism have underscored the need to find better ways to help the disadvantaged communities and vulnerable populations in American society be better able to prepare for, respond to, and recover from catastrophic events. Recent research conducted by a partnership between Oak Ridge Associated Universities’ (ORAU) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) reveals that accessibility to technology, such as texting and the Internet, are critical for helping the most-vulnerable members of a community be more resilient when a disaster strikes.

The report recently issued by ORAU and researchers from ORAU member universities explains that among the widely accepted and currently used technologies are text messaging and short message service (known as SMS) systems that can blast out text messages to a large coverage area in seconds, can target the message to one geographical region or can even call cell phones with a spoken message for people with vision impairments or illiteracy concerns.

Also promising for reaching the vulnerable members of a community are electronic government initiatives, which include Internet technology, kiosks and mobile devices as a platform for exchanging information, providing services and interacting with citizens, businesses and other arms of government, the report states.

The report—which is titled, Providing Access to Resilience-Enhancing Technologies for Disadvantaged Communities and Vulnerable Populations—emphasizes that although technology serves as a tool for resilience-building efforts, the foundation for resilience lies in community social organization.

Collective competence and a shared sense of responsibility are important factors when empowering a community, said Dr. Jay A. Mancini, research team member, as well as professor and senior research fellow at the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Dr. Mancini also said that “the role of technology in enabling network connections in a community is critical, as properly functioning linkages develop and in turn permit community capacity to evolve.”

“The key for emergency managers and planners to realize is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” said research team member Dr. John J. Kiefer, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of New Orleans. “Leaders must know their communities inside out in order to customize the best mode of technology and communication to meet the needs of their population.”

A detailed telephone survey conducted with persons 18 and older living in Charleston, South Carolina, as part of the research effort showed that while access to technology services and tools is unevenly distributed based on socioeconomic factors, the promising news is that more than 70 percent of those surveyed reported having cell phone access, and 60 percent reported having home computers, most with Internet access.

Research team member Dr. Betty Morrow, a professor emeritus in sociology at Florida International University, said, “The technology gap is closing and access to technology is one way that community leaders can make sure that no group is left out of the mix.”

The project was organized by ORAU’s University Partnerships Office and was sponsored by the ORNL-based Community and Regional Resilience Institute, a congressionally funded, Department of Homeland Security-sponsored program that studies many facets that support and make communities more resilient.

“The report lays out many broad recommendations that we hope will give cause for thought, discussion, and action among government agencies, emergency managers and other community members who want to ensure that there are no members of the community left behind in the wake of a disaster,” said ORAU Project Manager Terina Stewart.

The report is available to local, state and federal agencies, and project team members will present the report findings at upcoming conferences, including the 2009 World Conference on Disaster Management, the FEMA Emergency Management Higher Education Conference and the Natural Hazards Conference, Stewart said. The report may also be accessed on the University Partnerships Office page of the ORAU Web site.

In addition to Drs. Kiefer, Mancini and Morrow, the research team also includes Dr. Hugh Gladwin, director of the Institute for Public Opinion Research and associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Florida International University.

“This research project serves as a great example of how ORAU engages its university members in issues of local, regional and national importance,” said Cathy Fore, ORAU’s director of Collaborative Initiatives. “The project team’s interdisciplinary approach involving sociology, anthropology, public administration and human development and technology provides valuable insights into how communities can strengthen their resiliency to disasters. The results of this project are valuable to ORAU’s entire consortium of member institutions.”

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy.

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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