When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in late October, the executive director of the Buechner Institute for Governance watched the storm aftermath with the expert eye of a researcher who studies disaster and homeland security policy and management.
“New Jersey and New York are not accustomed to dealing with hurricanes,” said Brian Gerber, PhD. “And that part of the country is definitely not accustomed to having one with that size and magnitude this time of year.”
What intrigues Gerber is how a community—at the state, local and national level—responds to a disaster. He asks the questions that are key for policy-makers and politicians. “Why is a community’s performance effective in terms of things like disaster response or disaster recovery? What explains why some communities are more or less effective in these kinds of activities?”
In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, Gerber was following the newly recharged debate about a proposed multibillion dollar storm surge barrier that could be built around much of New York and would have prevented the vast destruction wreaked by the hurricane. Supporters of the proposal point to major cities in Europe that are protected by barriers. Those who oppose it argue that the cost of building such a barrier is very high, and the probability of another Sandy is low.
“That is the heart of the challenge when you are preparing for disaster events,” said Gerber.
“Disasters are properly seen as low-probability but high-consequence events. But generally speaking, communities are a lot like people. People don’t like to invest resources to prepare for something that is unlikely to happen, but when it does happen, you tend to get a bad situation if you aren’t prepared.”
Gerber’s research has shown that communities with effective systems to handle natural and technological disaster and with prior disaster experience often can adapt what they have in place to newer threats, like terrorism. “You are in better shape to handle the demands of preparing for terror attacks if you already have a well-designed all-hazards system,” he said.
What Gerber does in his own research is exactly what he believes the Buechner Institute should be doing: connecting researcher expertise to real world problems in search of solutions.
Gerber joined the Buechner Institute not long after its inception. He sees the Institute as the applied research arm of the School of Public Affairs. “We are the bridge between the academic community, government and nonprofit agencies and the general public,” he explained. “We try to meet that charge by doing applied research, developing training programs and initiating civic engagement to help improve public management.”
Gerber believes that reduced funding means that the university must be more proactive, reaching out to constituencies that can benefit from the Buechner Institute’s areas of expertise, which include criminal justice, environmental affairs, emergency management, education, government, health policy, leadership and professional development.
“Those of us fortunate to work in a university setting have an obligation to move beyond the academic world,” he said.
Currently, institute professionals are working on a variety of projects, including a series addressing efficiency in three areas of Colorado: state government, P-12 education and higher education. Other projects involve assessment of voter registration across the U.S.; policy and management of hydraulic fracturing; and Solutions, a website focused on health policy issues.
The Buechner Institute for Governance has several internal research centers, including The Center for Education Policy Analysis and the Center for Local Government Research and Training, as well as several affiliated centers, such as the Center on Domestic Violence. The Institute also offers professional development and training programs and technical assistance services to state or local government or non-profit organizations.
If you are looking for polarized opinions about divisive issues delivered vehemently at maximum volume, you may want to settle into your easy chair and pick up the TV remote.
If, on the other hand, you are seeking civil discourse from smart, capable scholars and citizens discussing public interest issues facing Colorado and the nation, you may want to set your alarm in time to attend a 7:30 a.m. Buechner Breakfast, held on the first Friday of every month.
The November breakfast focused on the issue of voter registration, examining the reasons states varied in their ability or willingness to effectively register voters. Recent breakfasts asked questions about how cities can be designed to improve health care. Future breakfasts will look at Governor Hickenlooper’s “TBD Colorado” initiative, the Denver city budget and human trafficking.
“These are substantive discussions meant to inform the public about important policy questions,” said Gerber. With his leadership, the university looks forward to more substantive discussions centered at the Buechner Institute for Governance.