Communities all over the world heard Hurricane Katrina as a clarion call for better emergency preparedness. But another overarching lesson was the role of high-level leadership in managing the response to a catastrophe, and the consequences when such leadership is lacking.
Training a core of government, nonprofit and community leaders to effectively take command in crisis situations is the goal of Tulane University’s new Disaster Management Leadership Academy, a degree-granting program now taking shape. It is billed as the first university program in the U.S. offering doctoral-level training in international disaster management, and the only program of its type focused on leadership development.

“We will be the disaster management leadership mecca,” says Charles Figley, professor of disaster mental health at Tulane’s School of Social Work, and one of the new academy’s organizers. “Our goal is to learn as much as possible from successes and mistakes of disaster management in the past.”

Programs will be aimed at mid-career and senior-level professionals responsible for planning and responding to emergency events. In addition to the doctorate track, the academy will eventually offer master’s degrees and certification in areas like disaster mobilization and communications.

“This will be like a flight simulator for disaster managers,” says Figley. 

Further, research complied through the academy could enrich a knowledge base to help inform government policy during humanitarian crises. The U.S. Agency for International Development has helped get the program started with $2.1 million in grant funding.

“The government has to know who to give assistance to, how long and how much,” Figley says. “If there’s a metric, then it’s not personal. Government decisions and policies can be based on the science of disaster management and what we’ve learned in the past.”

While Tulane’s program takes an international approach, drawing on experts from around the globe, the academy’s setting in New Orleans is significant, given the city’s experience with extreme disaster and the highs and lows of applied disaster management after Katrina.

“It was the worst disaster in American history. If you fill any city with water and let it sit there for two weeks, you’ll have a huge problem. But the way New Orleans has come back from that is amazing and people around the world want to know how you do that,” says Figley. 

Programming should begin in the spring semester with workshops specifically for New Orleans-area leaders, courses for other disaster management researchers and academic peers and the first classes for the academy’s Ph.D. track. – I.M.