As a woman

Over a year ago, a celebrity asked women to respond to a tweet using #MeToo if they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Women responded with a roar. In the year since dozens of harassers and abusers have been stripped of their cultural or political power. Yet, as I started writing this post, allegations of sexual misconduct were headline news in a partisan drama. #MeToo has the potential to permanently and meaningfully change our culture and social norms, but institutionalized change takes time, it still feels too early to know what permanent change, if any, will emerge. The way I describe these years to my children has yet to be written. I see a lot of potential in #MeToo, but I’m worried the message will be weaponized by both extremes in a political melodrama and the heart of the movement will be drowned in the storm.

So many times you hear people say “think if it was your mother / daughter / sister / friend, how would that make you feel?” Like many others, I’ve never been a huge fan of that adage, it makes it feel like men need a relational reminder in order to recognize the humanity of women. But over the years, for reasons you’ll discover below, I have become very vocal with my male friends about what’s happened to me. I’ve been astounded by how many of my men have been astounded.

My theory is that these good men view me as someone undeniably worthy of respect. They are sick at the thought of anyone treating me inappropriately and, as such, overestimate the share of men who also would never treat me like that. Good men are prone to project their good behavior onto other men and end up accidentally missing reality.

It’s clear that, even in the era of #MeToo, good men don’t realize the prevalence and persistence of piggishness. But ignorance doesn’t help women and it doesn’t help decent men.

With that, I’ve decided to tell my story. I’ll start by saying it’s comparatively mild. I have never been raped, and I do not believe the experiences I detail below went so far to be described as attempted rape.  A few constitute assault. Like many other women, I have comforted a friend after she was raped. Like most other women, recognizing and mitigating potential harassment and assault are a significant chunk of my daily routine. Perhaps like all other women, my growth into adulthood is strongly characterized by my journey learning to deal with sexual misconduct. It has had a dramatic impact on my self-narrative.

Teenage Years

The summer after high school graduation, a few dozen graduates stuffed ourselves into the cabin house belonging to one of our friend’s parents. There were many more people than beds. As 18 years olds do, kids overstuffed together in beds and were strewn about the couches and floors. I was lucky enough to snag a spot in one of the queen beds. In the early morning, I woke up to one of the guys on top of me, groping me.

I ran out to the living room, accidentally waking up a few friends along the way. I was visibly disturbed and told them what had just happened, then I curled up on a chair and fell back asleep. Looking back, I think I remember one of the friends I awoke, not the others. I can’t remember exactly what I said, would they?

I left a few months later for my freshmen year at CU Boulder. Twice that year, with different male friends, after falling asleep alone, I again woke up after a night out to hands searching my body. I was again shaken. I ended my friendships with each of them, without an explanation or conversation. I just started avoiding, stopped texting back.

Separately, I also gained a reputation among my friends for always chatting with the “weirdos” at the party. Of course, my friends meant it endearingly. They loved me for always being open and warm. I was known for always being friendly, much friendlier than they would be. Coldness just didn’t come naturally to me.

Young Professional

Years later, while I was volunteering at an NGO, I was enjoying after work beers with my coworkers. It was hot out and we were dressed casually, wearing dresses, shorts, sandals. A superior was sitting across the table from me. He kicked his shoe off and casually slipped his foot under my dress and far up between my legs. My stomach dropped when I realized what he was doing. His eyes met mine and he smiled.

Quickly I oriented and calculated; my boss — our boss — was two chairs away. Was he seeing this? Did he think I wanted this? What would be the cost to me if I caused a scene by revealing my inner indignation? No, I thought, I’ll be done here soon, best to leave without a reputation. After I politely excused myself, he texted me asking for me to join him in bed. I ignored his texts and never directly addressed his behavior.

I fell asleep wondering if maybe this was just normal behavior in the NGO world. I wasn’t a naive college kid anymore, right? A man had seen me as a woman, I thought, not as a college kid, and I was overreacting — he was just being flirtatious. Actually, he was probably being flirtatious back, he must have thought I was flirting with him before. I am after all, as readers personally familiar with me know, expressive, light-hearted, talkative, and, even as I age, giggly. I made a note to curb those tendencies around new men and men I’d be working with professionally.

Months later, I was a graduate student and out for fieldwork, interviewing people about their stories throughout disaster recovery. For one of the first times in my life, I felt confident in my profession. I knew I was good at establishing rapport. It felt like my skills were employed in the right direction. I felt alive as an empathetic, humorous, curious and insightful interviewer.

But then during one of the interviews, everything changed. Usually, I conduct my interviews during working hours in the interviewee’s office, but I had known this interviewee for several weeks. I felt comfortable relaxing the setting and grabbing a few Pilsens while we chatted. We conversed in the cafe of a hotel over a late dinner.

By the second beer, he started reaching out for my hands, my knees. He asked if I had had sex and how many times. He suggested we get a room upstairs. I denied, but he refused to drop it. Things had gone too far. I calculated the professional cost if I was to draw a hard line and offend this man — a gatekeeper to much of the research. Not yet, I thought, you need him. I ended the interview, yet he was my ride home. I demurred, unsuccessfully. Again I thought: You need him, don’t blow it all up. Along the unnecessarily slow drive, he persisted in his questions about sex and continued to try to caress my hand, my thigh.

Once alone in my hotel room, I emailed a colleague waiting for me to phone into a scheduled Skype call:


Can we postpone the meeting? Normally my reaction would be to either work through my current feelings or to make up some excuse. I’ve thought about what just happened though, and how I feel, and somehow I feel you’re one of the few people in the world who would understand. Because of that, I think there’s probably space to do what I really feel like, and that’s like retreating into the seclusion of my room. 

It’s not a big deal at all, but I think that’s part of what’s unsettling to me… that it’s never a big deal. I finally got to interview REDACTED, over a few beers at a local hotel. I was looking forward to the interview… but after three beers tonight he started over-probing about my relationships with boys and when I told him I had to leave to have a meeting with you he said we should just rent a room and I can use the hotel’s wifi. Maybe I can’t write it all into words but there’s an overwhelming sense of awareness when a situation takes a turn like that. When you know a man you trusted is a man you can’t trust at that moment at all. 

I want to retreat because I feel confused and sick. What began as a night of getting great data because he feels so comfortable with me turns into a night of my closest father-like figure turning creepy — also because he feels so comfortable. One moment I was feeling so grateful for how easily I can talk to people, the next I was cursing it for getting me into that situation. I feel at fault, maybe other women can identify and avoid these situations better than I can. Was I too welcoming? 

I feel like I can’t tell my family because they’d be overprotective, and I can’t tell my friends because I’m genuinely embarrassed. But I feel like I can tell you that I don’t feel in the right mindset to focus. I’m so sorry this is the second time I’ve moved it. I can literally do any other time at all, it’s up to you. 

Her response was perfect. Swift and compassionate. However, three times in her email, she wrote in all caps: YOU DID NOT ASK FOR THIS. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT

That rocked me to my core. Before I read those words, it had never, never once then or any time before, occurred to me that it wasn’t my fault. The most striking thing about her response was what I never even considered independently: that it wasn’t my fault. It was so logically true and I was ashamed that my mind had only been racing through my behavior and what I had possibly done wrong. After previous comments and moments, ranging from uncomfortable to assault, I felt an immense guilt. I would replay all of our previous conversations over and over in my mind. I would dissect them moment by moment, trying to pinpoint my faults. Clearly, I had been too friendly. I would identify my errors and vow never to get myself in that position again.

I spent the next day with all lines of communication off, wallowing in the pain, confined to my bed. I felt exhausted by sexual harassment (an Americana walking on Tacloban streets get catcalled every five feet, and even though it is culturally different and presumably well-intentioned, I still loathed it). I was emotionally empty after the realization that I had been masquerading as an empowered and confident woman when in reality I was habitually and self-destructively blaming myself for everything that was NOT MY FAULT.

In the days and weeks that followed I maintained contact with him, but at a distance, trying to balance my professional goals with his unprofessional intentions. He started to grow angry at me for not texting back immediately or inviting him to evening social functions (mind you, he was more than twice my age). Still, I stayed quiet and kind.

Everything came to a head when I visited his office to pick up a form I needed. He was visibly angry at me. He told me that I was selfish and that my research was a sham. He threatened to pull it all out from under me. In the office, I held my ground. Yet I left shaking. I stumbled to the nearest coffee shop and broke down in the bathroom. My rental home was far, and I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t yet have any friends in the country to tell. I felt ashamed, scared, and disgusted. My friendliness and warmth were twisted against me, and, despite the reminder that none of this was my fault, I hated myself for the role I thought I had in cultivating the situation.

In the following days, I told my advisor and, on a whim, emailed several girlfriends what happened. I included a few I admired but hadn’t talked to in months. In response, I received overwhelming love and support. I felt solidarity, as they consoled me many shared their own experiences. In their stories, I recognized that feeling uncomfortable as a woman is a radar, we just know when a situation is wrong, even if the sum of all the little things don’t seem to add up.

Back in Colorado

Sharing that experience and listening to the experiences of my friends ignited the beginning of a major shift for me. I was sick of feeling guilty about my own behavior and sick of feeling trapped in polite behavior. So, so, so sick of kindness being misconstrued as an invitation. That email began my own personal year of the woman. When I returned to Boulder in January of 2017, I resettled into my home, which I shared with four of the women I admire most in the world, with a newfound passion for (obsession with?) female friendships and girl power. Everything was about The Court, our household nickname and the moniker for how we would treat each other and expect to be treated. We were the Ladies of the Court — honorific, venerable, powerful. Everything was about The Court. Well, almost everything.

I also returned to classes on at CU Boulder. In one of my classes, I was assigned to a group project.  Have you ever waited for group project assignments to be announced and, even though you would struggle to articulate why, queasily waited thinking “please, don’t let me be placed with _________?” Me too.

I was placed with him. Outside of class, we shared the same office assignment. He sat by the coffee maker and along the path to the door. He was the first and only person to turn as I walked in and out. I saw him constantly. He lived by me, a few miles from campus, and yet frequently biked to school without a jacket. Before all my woman spidey-senses ignited, I offered him rides. Once they went off, I started sneaking in and out of the office, pretending to take a call so I could escape his request for a ride home.

This is January of 2017. I recently started seeing my ex (now current, and amazing) boyfriend, Eric. Eric and I were still figuring out our reconnection, we had yet to define the relationship. Only a week in, however, I told this man Eric was “my boyfriend” in the way that women do when they want to still be nice while putting up a barrier. A few weeks later, I showed up and loudly recounted to my desk mate the fact that I had just run into an old professor from undergrad and announced to him that I was just arriving from Eric’s house. No one needs to blurt out to their professor where they had stayed the night before, and I was really embarrassed by the encounter. But I made sure to share it so vocally with my friend because, of course, I was hoping she wasn’t the only one listening.

As the semester goes on, I feel an increasing but subtle discomfort. Like, my desk is at the end of a row. It has a cubicle wall on one end. He would frequently come to ask a benign question but ask it while clinging to that wall, hovering over me. I agree…that’s nothing to raise the alarms about, right? There are many more moments I could write, but as I write them none feels like the moment. Its a collection of tiny moments that are only uncomfortable to the person that’s lived them all, me, and that never clearly cross a line.

When I decided to write this post, I decided to be truthful. But some of the things are much harder and, admittedly much more embarrassing, to reveal. They are the truths that no one else might understand, but that dominated my mind. Logically, I knew that sum of all the little things didn’t add up. Illogically, I started to hate showering because I felt that he thought about me while he showered. I started to avoid school. I told my friends I didn’t feel safe inviting him to our home for my birthday party, but I also didn’t feel safe excluding him (which, logistically, would have to be purposeful and likely public). By May, for the first time ever before a presentation, I puked before standing next to him to report on our final group project. After the semester ended, I didn’t go to campus once until I knew he was out on his summer travels.

I had nothing to report. Nothing had happened. If I was to tell my story to anyone, I was likely to come off as self-centered, deluded, weak, or presumptuous. At the time, it didn’t really feel like a story to me at all. It was a string of events that, at that point in my life, I was accustomed too. Sure, it was amplified and my woman spidey-senses were off the radar, but I was just happy he was gone for the summer.

My summer relief disappeared when an officemate returned from a conference, one she attended with him just before he left, and warned me to stay away from him. She described to me how, after a few beers at an evening networking event, he separated her from group conversations and started to aggressively question her about women. She recapped his animosity towards several of the women in our office, but his hatred for one of us was sharp. With glazed and angered eyes, he described to her how he and I would be perfect together. How I just didn’t see it, but I would. He recounted twisted memories. For instance, he recalled my birthday, and how I had clearly been dancing with “some guy” just to make him jealous. Eric, my boyfriend, was the “some guy”.

She didn’t have a clue that I had felt uncomfortable around him. After the conference, she was so rattled that she took time to re-set and reflect in her hometown. She added his aggressive behavior to all the other times he had thrown her…like the time he guest-lectured and then obsessively talked about the attractiveness of the undergraduate girls. Or the time, in casual conversation about another colleague’s research, he added how nice her rack is. Upon reflection, she showed up to tell me I need to stay far, far away from him. To this day, I still don’t know the extent of what he said to her. She never felt comfortable restating it word for word to me. I probably didn’t feel comfortable hearing it. I know that he implied he intended to force me to be with him or punish me for rejecting him. She didn’t know I had already started keeping my leatherman in the office, behind a frame on my desk, knife out. Other women in the office joined in…”Wait, did you say he cornered you to ask about women and then projected a weirdly aggressive attitude towards women? Me too!” Once we combined our stories, we knew we had to elevate it.

We set out to tell the institution, to simply share our stories and, we thought, let the processes kick in from there. We told our advisor, who was incredibly empathetic. She checked into the procedures and routed us to the appropriate office. At our appointment, they separated us and asked us to narrate our stories. I remember I made the mistake of listing mine, emphasizing the small moments, none of which individually looked all that troubling. I didn’t understand that they would be recounted nearly word for word back to him. I didn’t understand that a stranger would be owning my story, and, with that, all the raw moments I felt scared or unsure would disappear into oblivion.

Without prior experience with the school’s processes for sexual assault and harassment, I think we assumed we would tell the authorities-at-be, and they would take it from there. In the months that followed, we were asked to join a mediated session with him and consulted about how we would prefer his case to be handled.

Looking back, we were very naive. I felt like my voice had been taken from me. If the school was just going to recount my narrative (with presumably an empty, soulless tone), without added explanation or consequence, yes, I would have preferred to do it myself. I would have preferred to look him in the eye. I would have preferred to say “I know what you said about me. I know what you said about undergraduates. I know what you feel. I am done pretending with niceties. In not shutting off your passive-aggressiveness, I have only hurt myself. I could not think less of you.”

Of course, I never said that. Rather, I was disheartened by the institution and conversely immensely inspired by our advisors. I learned that action really comes down to a few really, really good people. A few advisors who believe you and, at a potential risk to their own careers, refuse to tolerate sexual misconduct, are committed to a department culture of equality, and actively defend your truth to the university. That said, not much happened. Although I don’t believe this man should ever teach your future daughters or mine, he’s on track to be in such a position.

A lot of this was happening over the fall and winter of 2017. While at home with my family for Christmas, I took a call from my advisor updating me about the case. When I got off the phone, my parents were visibly interested and confused. Okay, I thought, I’m going share. I need to tell more people what’s been happening.  I took a deep breath, and I told them that I had a problem at school with a male peer who had I felt had been harassing me and had threatened to hurt me to another student. The only comment my dad had? He questioned if my actions were destroying this guy’s career.

I do not think my dad is sexist. Few men in my life are. On the contrary, and at the risk of revealing my favoritism, I think I’ve cultivated a band of exceptionally good men. My dad has always been and will forever be my hero. I already love my future brother-in-law like he is my brother. My boyfriend is my teammate and I love the way I look in his eyes: intelligent and capable, by default. Thanks to the gender disparities in both engineering and the military, I have numerous deep and enduring male friendships. I would not be where I am today without such admirable men beside me.

Across the board, I believe most men are good men who, as my theory goes, are so good they have no idea how the others truly can be. They think of sexism so infrequently, consciously witness it so infrequently, they just don’t know what to do or say when bluntly confronted with it.

In all honesty, neither do I. So can I really blame them?

I may be a woman, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to societal views. As I wrote my stories above, I felt an intense urge to preface it with a reminder that I was a good student, at school on a scholarship, following a path to serve my country. But of course, such statements would underline the events with the implication good girls (like me) don’t deserve it, while other girls might.

No one deserves it.

And yet… there I go giving in to my tendency to fight and to teach. On one hand, when it comes to the #MeToo movement, my teeth instinctively grind together. I feel instinctively armed to fight. I feel angry, I am ready for change.

On the other, when I decided to tell my story, as simple and common as it may be, I had to continually fight the urge to pepper it with “nevers”,  “how to’s”, and “do nots”. As a woman, I’m often burdened with the role of teaching men how to be men. I’m asked to explain stories, boundaries, appropriate conversations, and consent. I date a good man, a really good man, and as much as I feel he stands with me on these issues, I doubt he’s ever had to explain to a woman how not to scare a man. I doubt he has been pressured to detail to a woman why her actions traumatized him —  retraumatizing him in the process. He’s never told me about canceling a night out with friends because he was too exhausted to repeatedly, forcefully — but ever so politely! — physically push away women on the dance floor who, unsolicited, grab him from behind and grind. Surely, he’s never debated between “If I am blunt now, will I come off as a presumptuous bitch?” and “If I am not blunt now, will I be deemed complicit later?” I wonder if he, or my dad, or my brother-in-law, or my guy friends, have ever looked in the mirror after being harassed — after being grabbed while their professions hung in the balance — and seriously contemplated “Was that my fault?”

Here is what I do know:

  • I don’t feel sympathy for men worried they will need to start watching their words, scared of how women might interpret their behavior. I’ve been watching my behavior for a long time, scared of how men might interpret it. I look forward to spreading the burden.
  • Not a single action that I have ever taken or ever will take will justify sexual misconduct. This one I learn from and practice with my friends, as we talk each other down from moments of self-blame.
  • What was traumatic for me might not be for another. What’s traumatic for another might not be for me. Regardless, at the end of the day, no one should place their hands where they are not wanted, aim sexually-suggestive words where they are uninvited. If I hear someone felt victimized by actions that cross those lines, I believe them.
  • I do not foresee myself ever joining a coalition of women signing a letter endorsing the character a male associate facing credible accusations of misconduct. I’ve seen enough to know that how a man treats me has little to do with how he treats another. I am disgusted by the swapping out of women’s experiences and the push to use examples of a few good female friendships as proof that a man is incapable of harassing behavior. To all the men I’ve ever had a congenial relationship with: my friendship does not give you the moral permission to mistreat another. Never use our friendship to explain away events outside of us.
  • I have faced shit because I am a woman. But that’s all. I am white, Christian, comparatively wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, and well-educated. No one has ever said a hateful remark to me because of my skin color or ethnicity, poverty level, physical limitations, lack of education, how I pray, or who catches my eye. Even if someone did, with a look of repulsion and vile tone, approach me to tell me that “all white people should die” their viciousness is unlikely to rattle me too much because I live in a country (and a world) where my identity almost perfectly matches the archetype of power. It’s far from fair but, on a personal level, being a woman is the only thing I really have to be scared about. I acknowledge some people in the world might not only disrespect me but actually hate me for reasons other than being a woman, but those people are woefully unequipped to do something about it. I haven’t lived it, but I do not doubt for a second that adding a discrimination dimension multiplies the shit. I believe it would also multiply my indignation. 

For the past three years, my work has involved years of interviewing individuals forced to relocate after a disaster (some wanted to move, others didn’t, all were essentially offered relocation or bust). On an individual level, each interviewee had little agency over their own relocation trajectory and in many cases, their recovery experiences were lacking. Given those circumstances, you might think that when someone shows up and says “Please, tell me your story” they would. Not the case. We struggled immensely to elicit honest, open, complete perspectives. People were guarded, or they doubted our motives, or they were exhausted of sharing without seeing reciprocal actions. All in all, if societal power is a hierarchy from top to bottom, individuals on the lower rungs were not eager to vocalize their grievances.

Right now, I see a lot of suspicions that Nobodies are attacking Somebodies just to capitalize on either the other’s rise or a perceived faddish-wave of anti-strongmen attitudes. Nothing in my lived experience, from the fact that I waited to tell my story until I left Tacloban City, to the mulling I did about this post and its potential hit to my professional goals, to the hundreds of conversations I had with disenfranchised relocated individuals, suggests to me that the Nobodies want to individually highlight the injustices they’ve faced. This is not fun. This is not profitable. This is far from a guaranteed victory.

Before diving into my story, I said that my experiences with sexual misconduct have had a dramatic impact on my self-narrative. Over the years I plunged from naivety into moments of confusion, self-hatred, and exhaustion. When I look in the mirror today, I see a newfound but hardwon sharpness in my eyes. The hint of a glare that wasn’t there at seventeen, lit up with an internal anger. In my chest, it feels like my heart literally grew. I feel a love and responsibility for other women I never knew before. It’s a visceral love, it feels tribal.

But this can’t be a tribal squabble. So, readers, I’m inviting you in. You are invited to believe me. To believe not only the particulars of what I’ve been through but the impact it’s had on me. To take that queasiness and horror you felt for me while reading and recognize it’s a fraction of what I felt living it. And then to look up and look around. If all this happened to and shaped me, what’s probably happened to and shaped all of the women around you right now?

I’ll end with the ending I wrote to my friends after I emerged from the Tacloban bathroom two years ago. Thinking of them, then and always, fills me with the grace and determination to carry on in times when it seems the hardest:

I have the most amazing network of friends. When I take a moment to think of all of your accomplishments, the trials you’ve endured, the literal glow you each project — I’m nearly brought to tears. You’re all very different: some of you are working tirelessly for a well-defined end goal, some have no clue what the end goal is or how to get there, but are doggedly undeterred by uncertainty, charging ahead with grit and hope. I’ve seen many of you in your own dark moments and watched you shine through them with unwavering love and compassion. You are all so giving, so intelligent, and so determined to be good friends and good people. My current hurdle is sexism, but in channeling the lessons I’ve learned from you are I know that everything will be ok. Thank you all for contributing to making me, me. For being the living evidence of smart, beautiful, strong and powerful women. 

I love and miss you all, but in many ways, each of you is with me every day. 

Across the Pond: Attending the 22nd UK Shelter Forum

What is the future of shelter?

Shelters provide refuge for families displaced by conflict and violence, drought and inhospitable lands, or sudden on-set disasters. Beyond survival, shelters are one of the first and most meaningful steps in restoring a sense of safety, privacy, protection, comfort, and hope. The “past” of shelter includes fast and compassionate responses across the globe, but also examples of sectorally segmented, donor-driven, and poorly designed shelters and programs.

At the 22nd UK Shelter Forum, a biannual meeting of shelter practitioners, donors, and academics, organizers kicked off the event by challenging attendees to contemplate how old practices can best adapt to a changing world and asked what is the future of shelter? 

Prompting questions such as Will there be continued incremental change or major disruption? and, how much does the shelter sector need to challenge itself to change? invited us to consider leverage points change is desirable and feasible.


Christina Bennett set the tone for the morning with her presentation of ODI’s Constructive Deconstruction research, an ambitious reimaging of humanitarian practice. She argued that past calls for reform have “tinkered around the edges” and failed to address the core architecture of humanitarian shelter. In response, her team has been piloting what they see as three complimentary future visions: the new humanitarian basics, network humanitarianism, and humanitarian anchoring.

The first, the basics, suggests we rescope to a rapid and nimble response by aiming to be gap-fillers, much like the international humanitarian community filled gaps in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The second vision sees networks as the 3.0 following (1.0) bureaucratic and (2.0) market-based humanitarian approaches. Finally, the third approach suggests anchoring need identification and delivery on the social economy. It was understandably a mile-a-minute session, but overall exciting to learn that ODI is prototyping various digital tools, finance mechanisms, and operations schemes to test their ideas. They also published a podcast episode for each of their three visions for humanitarian action.

Following the morning keynote, we broke out into smaller discussion groups to get into the nitty-gritty of issues such as urbanization, cash programming, and the Grand Bargain. I joined the group prompted with What are the measures of success? led by Victoria Maynard.

Victoria challenged us to not only question typical measures but who chooses measures of success versus who should. Past success in shelter programs has commonly been measured by the number of housing kits distributed or shelters built. The cluster of mini-group discussions bounced around measures addressing tenure, health, resilience (of both house and household), the ratio of external programmatic aid to household contributions, and longitudinal performance.

After lunch, I was humbled to follow presenters from the Norwegian Refugee Council to share some of the findings emerging from our research in Tacloban City. In connection with my USAID/OFDA Shelter and Settlements Fellowship, I’m indebted to Iru Serra-Lasa and Jake Zarins of Habitat for Humanity for making it possible to steal a few minutes.

The conversations towards the end of the day were less distinct in my mind, but rather weavingly addressed ongoing issues and the need to collectively develop improved practices. For instance, there’s a push among donors to return to more meager basic relief aid, so humanitarians need to get better at justifying why we do what we do—and backing it up with data. At another moment, one attendee suggested scrapping the notion that we do relief at all—international agencies are rarely on-site in the first 48 hours after a disaster—and instead accept that humanitarians do recovery.

A sister event to the UK Shelter Forum, the Shelter Meeting coming up in a few days in Geneva. If only it was a little easier to jump across the pond everytime I wanted to go to an exciting meeting!

Infrastructure Dormancy: Images

Infrastructure dormancy: a (possibly) temporary period of latency between construction completion of an infrastructure asset and its ultimate utilization in its intended capacity.

Definition, me. A little informal but, I think, important.

In Tacloban City, significant delays in transferring families resulted in housing infrastructure dormancy at many relocation sites, where a handful of transferred families are living against a backdrop of hundreds of unoccupied homes. Throughout 2015-2017, one of the major drivers of infrastructure dormancy was a lack of water service to relocation sites. The houses were built, but there were too few trucks and not enough water to make the sites livable.

Water limits were not the only issue that stymied transfers or contributed to infrastructure dormancy, however. The national government struggled to keep its contractors on schedule, and disputes with several further stalled construction. Elsewhere, swelling confusion over who was to relocate where burst into a break of transfers until discrepancies could be sorted out.

Still, in other cases, houses lie dormant not because they were never moved into, but because the families decided to move out. Sprinkled among occupied homes, abandoned houses hamper site maturity into a flourishing, lively, community. Vegetation begins to overtake the houses, burrowing into crevasses and slowly but surely deteriorating the brand new construction.

Dormant infrastructure doesn’t mean ignored infrastructure, especially when it comes to houses with completed roofs. If neighbors can get in, they’ll often use empty houses for storage. If unoccupied houses are locked, the exteriors are still useful places to hang laundry.

I’m not so sure I’ll get to wrestle with infrastructure dormancy in my dissertation, but it’s not an observation I want to keep to myself. Of course, dormancy issues are not happening at every single site, or with every contractor, and it’s not because of a one-size-fits-all reason. As the images convey though, its pervasive enough that it may warrant a broader conversation. One about aligning construction timelines, site sizing, and setting standards for house quality upon transfer and move-in.

Unfinished construction


Deterioration of utilities, windows, and doors

Finished houses (both dormant and abandoned)

Block 22 lot 26_Unoccupied

Up and out of Tacloban

I lived in Tacloban City, Leyte, for nearly five months straight but spent some time on short trips out of the city. In chronological order, here are mini synapses of my mini vacays. Hopefully these last two posts help satiate the dozens of loving family and friends who plead for non-nerdy details.

KL, Port Dickson, and Malacca, Malaysia

For some reason I was under the impression that leaving at two-month intervals would be easier than applying for a six month visa. Maybe I didn’t really research it as thoroughly as I should have, because I was happy to have an excuse to pop out of the Philippines and visit a friend also living in South East Asia. Mid-August  I convinced Tyler, once my co-intern at iDE in Denver and now a wonderful friend/fellow with PSI, to escape Hanoi and join me in Malaysia.

I previously visited Malaysia while studying abroad in Singapore and to be honest, I wasn’t as enamored with it as other SEA countries. I thought it deserved another shot.

We jumped around Peninsular Malaysia to explore more ground. We spent our first night in the capital, without any time to see the city but plenty to overindulge on the night market street food. Food, oh my goodness the tangy, spicy, umami, culturally mixed and enriched heavenly hawker center food I became addicted to in Singapore flooded back into my life. With so much deliciousness to eat, I could barely talk to Tyler. And then a spontaneous colorful parade jubilantly boogied down the market. I hope my joy is palpable, because I’m happy again just reminiscing while I type.

However the next day, Malaysia got weird. We took a bus to Port Dickson, a seaside town advertised as a favorite weekend getaway from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. We’re still a little confused, perhaps we wandered into the wrong part of town? We stayed on the beach but found it eerily quiet and post-apocalyptic. Not a soul was in a lights-on and rides-whirling amusement park. We took Inception-esque pictures in front of a dilapidated hotel; seemingly abandoned during construction, time and vegetation were cleaving the masonry apart. We made it fun, but Port Dickson isn’t on my list of must return locations.

malacca_chicken_rice_ballsThankfully we salvaged our trip at the end. In Malacca we found vibrant nightlife, more history than even museum-loving nerds like us could handle, and divine food. I can’t gush enough about the food: a rainy morning wait in line was worth it for acclaimed local chicken and rice balls, at dinner we fatten ourselves on what has to be the best Indian food outside of India, and approached a stuffed stupor at a Malaysian lunch the next day. Alright my drooling is impairing my writing… family, can we go to Southeast Asia for our Christmas feast?

Wellington, New Zealand

Maybe it’s true of all Americans but certainly the mountain folks of Montana and Colorado I know best: we love New Zealand. Having never visited, we romanticize the majestic, remote, rugged landscapes. When I learned a meeting right up my academic-alley would be convening in the capital of New Zealand, I jumped on it. Several blogs ago, I reflected on conversations and presentations from the 4th International Conference on Urban Disaster Risk Reduction. I loved the conference, but I also hung back for a few days to play tourist. Given that I fell head-over-heels in love, it’s a wonder I got on the departure plane at all.

I spent a week in Nomads Hostel where, on top of free breakfast and dinner, I was also gifted some pretty remarkable friends. Like Jamie, who used his British+gardener expertise to teach me the history of tea and how to prepare a proper cup. Jamie and I arrived as the millionth visitors at Te Papa’s astounding Gallipoli exhibit. Poor guy, didn’t even know me and had to endure my ecstatic jumping and squealing.

Jamie also took a group of us to a local rugby game and patiently explained the puzzling rules. The outing was fortuitously timed, on my last night in the country the All Blacks destroyed the Wallabies and I knew enough to smartly cheer along. I watched the legendary New Zealand vs. Australian game in a pub with a Nomads group, and was surprised by the rather polite cheering habits. Yes, everyone freaked out when the All Blacks scored, but when Australia scored against us the apparent appropriate response is to clap in recognition of a good try. I’m unaccustomed to such cordial behavior in acrimonious America.

I visited the Weta Workshop with another hostel group. Don’t know Weta? Think of the most awesome thing you’ve ever seen in a movie…the team at Weta likely helped bring it to life. Avatar, District 9, Lord of the Rings, Hellboy, King Kong, and so many more. They even contributed to the Gallipoli exhibit. Photography was prohibited inside the workshop, but I did snap a picture of the unassuming exterior, the fabulous Roxy Cinema, and a troll being a bully.

Wellington is a city I could easily live in. Except I may need some additional high-wind training. The Wellington wind shredded my umbrella!

My favorite moments were in my running shoes. One morning I took the train north to Paekakariki and ran along the flower-studded cliffside to Pukerua Bay, pausing excessively to refuel on the sea air. A few days later I scampered around the city, wandering from posh skyscrapers to the beach and up into the hills all in one run. It was glorious.

Moalboal, Philippines

Tyler had to do a little visa-skipping of his own, taking a brief holiday out of Vietnam to renew his application, so he jetted across the South China Sea to and met me in Cebu.

We spent the entire time in the little dive town of Moalboal on the south end of Cebu Island. While there are dozens of incredible places to visit in the Philippines and so many I haven’t checked off, I want to return to Moalboal as soon as I can.

We went snorkeling with sardines, which sounds unexceptional but the sardine run is a synchronized and mesmerizing dance. I lack the Go Pro skills to capture it but I recommend spending a few moments checking out this YouTube video about the sardines. We also explored reefs, canyoneered down Kawasan falls, took in a few beach sunsets, and learned to cook some of my favorite Filipino foods, sisig and bicol express. The cooking classes, particularly the chefs, really captured my heart. Seeking a middle ground between Davao and Manila where they could grow their life together, Ven and Venz are new to town but rapidly becoming a Moalboal mainstay. They are without a doubt the kindest and most inviting hosts I’ve ever encountered. Once we discovered their little restaurant, Ven’z, we returned for all of our remaining meals.

Sambauan Beach, Philippines

Phoebe and Shine taught me how to vacation Filipina-style. They also reminded me that Americans are way too punctual for our own good. They departed a day before me to explore the waterfalls of Biliran Island and told me to get on the 5 am bus the next morning. After executing my orders in a timely fashion, I bombarded the hotel room of a very sleepy Shine and Phoebe by 7 am. Following a slightly cranky breakfast, Shine (a wonder woman of logistical management) procured all of our food and arranged an inexpensive (but squished) ride to the port. From there we took an hour long boat ride to the island.

Sambauan beach is a tiny but beautiful little scrap of land. One end rises up and over the rest, providing stunning views after a quick climb to the top. It was a bit chilly so we didn’t spend much time in the water (by this time my constitution was fairly converted to equatorial heat…a little wind and I froze!). Instead, we relaxed in the comfort of good books and honest conversation. We rented a small hut and I strung up my hammock inside. It stormed that night, but cocooned in the hammock I warmly watched the rain and waves collide.

Kalanggaman Island, Philippines

The first stop on my adviser’s radical sabbatical was to visit me in Leyte. I was in last-month crunch mode with research and had yet to find time to squeeze in a trip to the local bit of paradise, Kalanggaman Island. There’s no better excuse to stop and relax than when its prescribed by the boss!

Like Sambauan, it’s a bit of a trek to get to the island. A four hour bus ride from Tacloban followed by an hour on a boat. Luckily Amy’s whole family was with her and a cramped bus wasn’t a wise idea. We loaded up with PB&J supplies, rented a car, and whisked to the port much quicker than I could have without them.

Kalanggaman is the most pristine, perfect place I’ve ever been. It’s wrapped in light crystal water and blanketed in snow-like sand. The only on-island amenities are a rickety bathroom and a sprinkling of tiny huts.This time I threw the hammock up in between two trees, where I was able to watch the sunrise over the ocean while swinging.

A significant amount of construction was underway, so I imagine the island won’t remain natural and pure for long. What does that mean… it means all my friends and family should come visit me in the Philippines when I go back and you can get to see paradise before it’s a resort!

The little things of daily life

I’ve been stateside a few weeks and although it’s late, I finally have the chance to write about what most non-research and non-nerd friends and family really care about, what my life was like in the Philippines.

Before I left I really didn’t know what to expect in Tacloban City. My mom made fun of me for maybe a bit of over preparation: I unnecessarily hauled over shampoo, markers, and back-up battery packs. It turns out Tacloban, a city of about a quarter of a million people, has everything I could ever need. I was spoiled with accessible amenities and a laid-back local cafe. Once or twice, I even snuck up to the rooftop of Hotel Alejandro for a dip in the pool and a view over the city.


Where I lived

blog7I found my home through Airbnb, just on the outskirts of downtown. I didn’t have AC but I did get my own spacious room and bathroom. I shared a kitchen with whatever guests chanced upon the Airbnb gem. Marvelously, it had reliable(ish) wifi! I decided to stay for the whole five months because I liked being out of the city. The kitchen overlooked a wetland and I enjoyed the tiny feeling of escaping into the wilderness and the happy faces of the two resident carabaos when it rained.

It wasn’t all smiles at my bahay (house) however. The neighbors had roosters, and I learned roosters like to have cock-a-doodle-dooing contests at 3:30 in the morning. Then they rest their vocal cords for a full morning clangor at 5:30. Here I am on one of those sunny early mornings:

How I got around

From my home it was only 2 km to the heart of downtown and I would often walk. Truthfully though, I started to abhor the sun as much as the locals—it was seriously so swelteringly hot—and by the end of my time there I was taking a multicab into town. Multicabs are a sort of converted truck with elongated and covered beds, lined with benches on either side. Dozens of them regularly circle the city so they’re easy to catch… the tricky part is knowing where you’re going. One method is to learn the local neighborhoods—Abucay, Tagpuro, Diit, Marasbaras, San Jose, etc.— and then catch the multicab branded with that barangay. Another is to be unabashedly vocal and naive, directly asking the driver and then all other passengers “Hey, is this going to intended destination?” and then comfortably chill. Not to worry, the driver will stop and all aboard will holler right when it’s time to drop.

Within the center of the city, trikes are popular. The downtown area isn’t all that big, but I’d still grab a trike when either the heat or the downpour of nature was fighting against me. The classic trike picture below can easily accommodate 5 passengers, my favorite seat is the feet-swinging spot right behind the driver on the motorcycle.

To get to more remote locations, like the relocation sites 12 km north of the city, I rented a scooter. One day I had Phoebe film a few parts of our commute, including a side jaunt across the San Juanico bridge to the island of Samar:


What I ate

Ok, so I actually didn’t really take pictures of the food. Mostly I just devoured it. Is that surprising at all? So I’ve borrowed some photos off the internet (dear photographers, I’m sorry). Pictured below are some of either my favorite (bicol express and street bbq) or uniquely Filipino (halo-halo) dishes.

I generally only had quintessential Filipino meals for dinner. For lunch I opted for one of the cheapest sandwiches on the coffee shop menu or ate simple meals in community eateries. At breakfast I would exchange Kuya Anton, the neighborhood sari-sari store owner, 21 pesos for tatlong bunay (3 eggs).

How I spent my time

I hope I don’t disappoint all my adventure-loving folks by revealing how little time I actually spent at the beach or in the mountains. Mostly, and to the relief of my advisor, I worked. I also spent a lot of time working to work: bumming cafe wifi to try to schedule meetings and waiting in government lobbies. When Roos was with me throughout November, she snuck in a few shots of me in my natural Tacloban habitat:

I know, totally exhilarating.

Remember that I study the construction of relocation sites, and on some of my favorite days we went to the relocation sites to learn directly from the experiences of relocated community members. These trips were a joy. Phoebe was the best research partner I could ask for and families welcomed us into their homes with kind and open hearts.

In the first picture, the kids bombarded our interview because they discovered pushing on my badly burnt shoulders imprinted designs into my skin, and they found that hilarious. In the next, Phoebe and I closed the day down with a beer and relaxed with one of her local friends after the loudest interview of my life (roosters, a highway, screaming kiddos, and karaoke all competing to ruin the audio recording). In the last picture, leaders of a transitional site gave me a tour around the garden, piggery, and water systems of their community.

Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you have any specific questions about my life and routines in Tacloban City! I’m happy to feed inquires and tack responses onto the end of this post.

Me, in the field

Some of my earliest memories are in my parents’ tavern. My father bought the It’ll Do Bar from his father, and my sister and I spent hours playing in my Dad’s office while he did the morning books. I was still young, maybe twelve, when I followed my dad through the bar on the way to his office one afternoon and we stopped and talked with nearly every customer on the way. Some of them I had met before but forgot, all in all I was visibly disinterested in making small talk.

When we got to his office he turned and scolded me for forgetting names and such a selfishly aloof attitude. He drilled into me that our business runs on caring about people, generously and genuinely listening to their stories.

I thought about this moment often while I was in the Philippines. It was one of those fundamental why I am the way I am experiences of my childhood, something I’ve always known about myself but perhaps never dug up and deeply examined. Fieldwork changed that.

This post scrutinizes and celebrates not my education or training as a researcher, but my character and background. Who I am, and why that matters. It took some time to string together, but the theme weighed on me for most of my time in the field. It’s one thing I thought about often while squished in the multicab on the way to the city or patiently waiting in the foyer of a government office… but rarely contemplated before I began. I’m sure mentors attempted to warn me, but I was oblivious.

Fieldwork forced an intimate interrogation of how I listen and engage. I found it peculiar—and, truth be told, awesome—that I was most grateful for influences from my roots, rather than the technical skills picked up since then. Like being raised with a family bar business and parents who deeply value authentic connection. For my parents, there has never been any difference between an on and off-the-clock persona, they are consistently warm and conversational. I relied on their lessons every. single. day. In interviews I only had moments to cultivate rapport, convey how truly thankful I was for the conversation, and establish myself as trustworthy.  In the back of my mind I was constantly thanking the good ol’ It’ll Do and my tribe of rowdy, talkative, compassionate Palagis for all the practice.

This research project is unique in that it required me to adapt to two distinct spheres of Filipino society. Out in communities, one-on-one interviews could blossom into focus groups or group activities. With a gaggle of people, the scene was at risk of losing purpose and dissolving into chaotic energy. In partnership with Phoebe, we transitioned from conducting research to performing it.

In high school, I was a theater geek. A proud thespian and active member of the drama club. It’s a passion that’s oddly slipped out of my current life but in the field I found myself recalling small techniques from my theater days. A good portion of acting is about paying attention, actively noticing nuanced behaviors of those around you and nimbly reacting. In potentially chaotic gaggles of participants, I felt as though I was on stage, responsible for captivating attention and simultaneously seeking the truths others were sharing. It was playful and exhilarating.

In government offices however, I turned downed the whimsy and turned up the deference. When I wasn’t in communities, much of my time was spent talking with those I label decision makers, a broad category of people who have touched the where, what, why, and how of Tacloban’s relocation projects. Filipino culture, particularly within the government, is more hierarchical than American. It requires switching to Sirs, Ma’ams, and titles, like Engineer Shaye. Those unfamiliar with formal addresses may find “Ma’am Isabella” clunky to say, but I’m very comfortable with titles: the Air Force has engrained me with a natural tendency to address others with rank or respectful appellations. Experience with government formality helped me to quickly pick up on the Filipino version and, as I sought to study the way decision making unfolded for relocation, recognize where those institutional process may have influenced outcomes.

Much of that sounds lovely, but I’m not a research-bot perfectly designed to tackle fieldwork in the Philippines. There were moments I bumbled, tenacity wavering, and many times I felt truly challenged. Research, at least the type conducted up and away from a computer, required every bit of grit I own and some borrowed from a collection of supportive friends and family. Especially in networking and scheduling interviews, I had to go far beyond my comfort level to consistently, persistently, pester participants. Make no mistake, essentially all Filipinos are crushingly kind. But they’re also busy. Then once I actually did get to talk with people, pride in my chatty cathy abilities threatened to totally veer the meeting off script. I’ve got far too many recorded conversations about the American election,what my accommodation was like in the city, and what so-and-so likes to do when they visit their Aunt in California. It’s a little funny, but also troubling considering I’m interested in listening to their opinions, not my own.

Finally, I’d have to be naive to ignore the fact that my research was impact by more than just what I said or how I carried myself, it was also impacted by how I looked. I’m young and a woman, but a particularly young looking woman. Most people I encountered were astounded to find out I’m over 20. I counterbalanced my juvenescence with the announcement that I’d finished my first engineering course (their process of becoming a PE is a little different than ours). Still though, I was a bit peculiar. Add in my foreignness (despite my elation about palagi meaning always in Tagalog) and I often felt my respondents were a little curious about me. Perhaps that curiosity allowed me to explore my own a little further than I otherwise could.



The American holiday for gratefulness coincided with my first few moments out of Tacloban City. Coupled with time to reflect gifted to me by the gridlock of Manila traffic, several THANK YOUS have grown up so strongly inside me that I’ve got to publicly free them.

Five months ago I moved to the Philippines alone, without much of a landing pad. Most strongly, I’m grateful for the people who colored my life in Tacloban. I was extraordinarily blessed with local friends who shared cultural know-how and fellow foreigners who shared stories of their own bumbling attempts to get all the Pinoy nuances. Marie, Sarah, Shine, Steph, and Yvonne, thank you for sharing so many laughs and cold-ish Pilsens with me.

Apparently, and so wonderfully, I also happen to have a Dutch twin. My last month in the city I was practically attached at the hip to Roos, a Master’s student from the University of Amsterdam who has similar research questions, a complementary disposition, and (the locals were convinced) looks just like me. Thank you Roos for showing me collaboration where there could have been competition, exemplifying patience and generous intelligence, and for making hours stuck in the waiting rooms of government offices fun.

The eclectic Yellow Doors Hostel group of locals graciously welcomes whatever internationals stumble into town, and I was no different. Dear Tacloban YDH friends, we (the expats) are fleeting and likely blend together but you (Jacques, Trixie, Panx, etc.) are so memorable and meaningful to us. Hopefully you know how grateful I am for Saturday nights on the rooftop, deep conversations about love gone wrong and right (still stoked for you Trixie), and a little bit of funky grooving.

Two year anniversary of everybody’s favorite hostel
Thrilled the 1st (& only) time we discovered craft beer in Tac City

If I’m talking about friendships with locals though, it goes without saying that everything would be different without Phoebe. Amy and I hired Phoebe to join me as a research assistant. She was experienced at community work, having previously worked for a few NGOs, but more importantly was genuinely interested in the perspectives of our respondents. In might have otherwise been awkward conversations, her compassion prevailed in making others feel valued and knowledgable. I’m also thankful for all those times she wasn’t angelic; Pheebs can flip over to sassy and hilarious contrarian in an instant. She’s also got a passion for keeping priviledge in check, doling out reality gut-punches.

I’m grateful for the friendships forged and nurtured from thousands of miles away. In my most difficult moments in the Philippines, I reached out to a network of the women I admire most and was humbled at the immense intimacy, bravery, and empathy of their responses. My friends truly shine. From afar I grieved with friends through death and disappointment, but I know it wasn’t enough. I also celebrate engagements, births, and new careers… again without as much palable enthusism as deserved. For everyone who tolerate the distance, I’m grateful for your forgiveness.

It’s astonishing to me how many of my friendships have deepened. A Colorado traveler country-hopping the summer away in Europe talked me down off a ledge of doubt in my engineering capacity. One of my closest friends was living in Vietnam and allowed me to egregiously take advantage of our similar time zones, and his paper editing skills. With another friend living in India, we went from sticking our pinky toes into conversations about love and research terrors to unabashed and deep openness. Much more than I expected, I relied on my MCEDC cohort for sanity and technical support. Letters, emails, blog posts, and skype calls from Alaska, China, Zambia, and India were truly comforting. Community can sprout without the convenience of shared soil.

I am thankful for each Taclobanon who open their lives and one of their most painful experiences up to me. I remain astounded at the eagerness of leaders and relocated community members alike to participate in the research. Please know the recovery strategies and stories you shared are each uniquely important to me. One of the most important tasks of my life will be to carefully reflect on your constellation of experiences, and translate what I’ve learned from each of you into impactful contributions to future relocation projects.


I recognize how special the opportunity to live and learn in the Philippines is, one made possible by unparrallel professional and family support. I work with an incredible research team, the Global Projects and Organizations group. I’m challenged by Amy and each fellow student to search for purpose, find clarity in my thoughts, and, quite honestly, work my ass off. Next, I’ll return this weekend to the Air Force flight that let me devote such concentrated time to my graduate degree. I’m grateful to be a part of an organization that encourages me to develop as an officer and a researcher. I am SO excited to put my uniform on again.

Finally, I am grateful for a family that finds pride in my path and joy in my oddball adventures. You all kill it with the Skype call sessions and make me feel so gigantically loved. Thank you.


Reflections on 4ICUDR

Mid-October I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 4th International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction in Wellington, New Zealand.

The conference venue, photo kindly borrowed from Architecture Now

I hope the original conference founders forgive me if I get this wrong, but the conference series began in the early oughts as a collaboration between American and Japanese researchers, expanded to Taiwan in the next round, and the third conference was held in Boulder two years ago. For the 4th, New Zealand researchers jumped into the mix, which was really special because many of the local presenters were able to speak from their recent experience with the Canterbury earthquakes. On top of the diversity in nationalities, I really loved the eclectic mix of practitioners and academics at the conference. There was a troop of fellow engineers as well as accountants, public policy folks, sociologists, economists, psychologists, public health experts, and even a law professor.

Me, likely talking way too fast

I presented on the initial analysis of interviews and observations from July and August in Tacloban City. In this phase of research, I’m really digging into understanding the institutional environment influencing relocation and construction decisions. In the same session another graduate student, Sam Penta from the University of Delaware, presented on her work to analyze post-disaster decision making and it was really fun to connect with her on our varying strategies. Her advisor at the Disaster Research Center, Tricia Wachtendorf, predicted research partnerships between us once we’re grown up academics with PhDs in hand. I’m totally on board. Sam is great, and I really loved the conference-wide emphasis on feedback and networking for young researchers. There was clearly a tradition of long-lasting relationships founded at previous ICUDR events, and I’d be thrilled to join the family.

There were a few presentations that have stuck in my mind, I’ll share them briefly in case any fellow hazard nerds find inspiration like I did. First, Tricia presented on a little-known part of 9/11, the waterborne evacuation of hundreds of thousands off of Manhattan Island. It was organic and spontaneous, smartly coordinated by the Coast Guard but lacking any pre-arranged plan. Working with James Kendra, also from the Disaster Research Center, Tricia found that many of the responders gravitated to help in “the only way they knew how”, acting off their expertise and identity as mariners. She compared it to a puzzle so large that individual actors could not know what the picture looked like and only had the means to stitch together a few pieces, but they trusted that others would be working on the puzzle pieces they couldn’t see and solve. For instance, ferry operators had no idea what would happen when they dropped people off in New Jersey, but it turned out a legion of bus operators was standing by to handle that piece of the puzzle. I thought it was a great analogy for emergency management, but I also realized that after an emergency, during long-term recovery, improvised and unassisted puzzle construction slows. In long-term recovery, actors can no longer operate under the assumption that random and unknown others are also working on the puzzle. Coordination is hard and requires purposeful, habitual, communication. I’d also argue that for successful recovery, the best outcomes will be derived from a shared picture of the puzzle while the individual actors work on their few pieces.

James Kendra also had a presentation, a bit of an off-the-cuff reflection of the needs and growing trends in the disaster research field. The biggest need in disaster research? More. Simply more. James cited a shift in hazards, changing recovery strategies (re: relocation, holla!), degradation of infrastructure and critical interdependencies as drivers for more disaster research. He also responded to common criticisms of disaster research, particularly critiques of the researcher’s impact in the emergency environment. He shared stories over his decades of disaster research that pushed back on negative myths and demonstrated researchers are not in the way, they don’t consume scarce resources, and they are not manipulating interview participants who are too distraught to provide informed consent. He argued that quick reconnaissance research should be kept informal and low impact, and in doing so is not a drain or detriment to the response effort.

Dr. Kendra delivering his thoughts on changes in the disaster field

Dr. John Hopkins, a Scotsman uprooted to New Zealand, provided an impassioned argument “in defense of red tape” from his perspective as a lawyer and law professor. He explained legislative controls, the bureaucratic processes that counter executive discretion, exist for good reasons and those good reasons don’t disappear during disaster recovery. Rather, in the exact moment we may most direly need good governance structures, we come to label those structures “red tape” in the way of swift and valiant recovery actions. I was intriguing because I’ve found the degradation of several conventional regulatory processes in Tacloban City has had unintended and unfavorable consequences on the quality and timing of the relocation project overall.

My favorite presentation was by Dan Neely, a community resilience manager for Wellington. He talked about the city’s efforts to draft a post-disaster recovery framework now, in the pre-disaster time. The average reader might not be so impressed, but I was elated. Wellington’s plan is rare and wonderful. Thinking about the recovery environment ahead of time allows for an alignment of expectations. It’s an opportunity to decide power distribution depending on the scale of the disaster and put careful thought into communication and coordination. Honestly I failed to take good notes on the talk because I was just wrapped up in listening.

There were many, many more stellar researchers and plenty of newcomers like me. The executive director of EERI, Jay Berger, is extraordinarily kind and noticeably took time to reach out to all the young researchers. I was stoked to meet economist Ilan Noy, who recently published an article with World Politics Review that I really loved. Keynote Dr. Kimiro Meguro shared lessons from Japan and emphasized the need to act smartly in a disaster regardless of how your location is coded on a hazard map; “some people misuse hazards maps as safety maps.” John Vargo from Resilient Organisations kindly invited me to dinner with several New Zealand researchers. I found a kindred spirit in Marc Azotea because he’s also from the Philippines… then I remembered oops no, I’m not a Filipina I’ve just been surviving on adobo and kinilaw the last few months. Marc moved to South Korea for his graduate studies even though he doesn’t speak Korean, mastering civil engineering and a new language at the same time!

I made many of them promise to try their best to attend the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado next July—hopefully I can keep my end of the deal and attend as well!