The University of California Disaster Resilience Network hosted its first ever conference in honor of International Disaster Risk Reduction Day on Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Sacramento UC Center. 

The UC DRN “mobilizes talent across the UC system to help overcome existential threats that disasters and other crises pose to society.” Lizzy Rager / Daily Nexus

The University of California Disaster Resilience Network (UC DRN) invited professors and administrators from across all nine UC campuses, along with representatives from state agencies, private firms and other state and international universities, to speak about resilience in light of recent natural disasters. 

Keynote speakers included the chief of Intergovernmental Processes, Interagency Cooperation and Partnerships Branch of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Sujit Mohanty, among other state agency officials and world-class UC researchers.

The event was largely sponsored by accounting firm Ernst & Young, non-profit Americares and engineering and disaster management firm Miyamoto International. 

“It was just impressive. To bring all of these different representatives together and put them in one room and have this larger conversation about what’s possible, what can we accomplish, what are we seeing, how are we responding to disasters,” UC Santa Barbara Assistant Vice Chancellor and Dean of Student Life Katya Armistead said in an interview with the Nexus.

Panel session topics ranged from the latest climate, health, pandemic, wildfire and coastal initiatives and research to private, civil and university partnerships, data and seismic science and community-based approaches. This followed networking sessions for attendees. Around 80 participants attended in-person and 130 participated online. 

UC Disaster Resilience Day aimed to “build the capacity of the state” and for “[UC DRN] partners to be able to better prepare for, reduce the risk of, respond to and recover from disasters,” UC DRN Executive Director Dr. Joe Leitmann said in an interview with the Nexus.

“The challenge that we face in the university system, you need money to do your research, and it can take months or even a year to apply for the grant that gives you that money,” Leitmann said. “So what we’re trying to do is put together a rapid response that would allow researchers to be on the frontline when an important disaster occurs.”

The UC DRN “mobilizes talent across the UC system to help overcome existential threats that disasters and other crises pose to society, matching resources with external needs and supporting research,” its website read. The network was founded in 2021 by Nicolas Alberto Pascal, a UCSB alumnus who put together the UC Haiti Initiative, a UC-wide effort to help rebuild Haiti after a catastrophic earthquake in 2010. He also founded the Associated Students Human Rights Board.

“We’re kind of the glue that holds together people from different disciplines in different campuses, to work together on common issues that are really about existential threats to society and help the university fulfill its public service mission,” Leitmann said.

In December, UC DRN put together an event to look at climate change research needs with state agencies that attended the recent event. Additionally, campus-based UC DRN committees helped bring community members as well. 

The first keynote of the event was with Mohanty, who is also the chief of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UN DRR) in the Arab state’s office in Cairo, Egypt. He spoke about when he joined the UN near the time of the 1999 Odisha cyclone, the most intense cyclone ever recorded with 14,000 reported deaths.

“The whole notion of a disaster was, everybody said to me, ‘these are natural disasters, we cannot prevent them,’” Mohanty said at the event. “We used to say in the UN DRR there is nothing called [a] natural disaster. A cyclone, earthquake or a flood are natural phenomena. It only becomes a disaster when there’s something lacking.”

Mohanty brought attention to the increasing number of disasters in recent years — the devastating wildfires in Maui, Canada and Washington State, record-breaking global temperatures, flooding in Libya and the Morocco earthquake. 

He said though fewer human lives are lost to disasters than before, poverty and inequality are growing, creating more vulnerability and risk when disasters do occur. Mohanty called out a “vicious cycle” of disaster creating poverty, and poverty causing countries to suffer from even simple shocks.

“There is very clear evidence that there is a link between climate change, poverty, vulnerability and conflict,” Mohanty said at the event.

Keynote speaker Dr. Saharnaz Mirzazad, the chief Deputy Director of Climate and Planning in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, spoke about how the state is changing its approach to disaster resilience. She talked about building general and community guidelines, providing tools to aid communities, offering accessible state data and identifying more disaster-prone areas to offer resources and preventative measures.

“One of the outcomes of the Paradise disaster was that we realized this community wasn’t showing up in any of our maps from the vulnerability perspective,” Mirzazad said at the event.

She also said the governor’s office wants to take advantage of the knowledge and research capabilities of the UC system.

“There’s a wonderful opportunity to link the research capacity and the analytical ability of the UC system to help the state meet some of these knowledge gaps,” Leitmann said.

Two panels from the event focused on building resilience within a community. UC DRN’s UCSB chapter committee leaders, Armistead and UCSB Professor Emeritus Richard Appelbaum, along with John Abraham Powell, co-founder of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigades and the director of the Montecito Fire Protection District spoke about their efforts and vision for a community-based approach.

“I think if you’re really concerned with community resilience, you have to involve the community and find out what their needs are and how they see it. How can you communicate with them? And it just seems, to me, intuitive,” Appelbaum said. “Ultimately, the rubber hits the road with people.”

Appelbaum emphasized the need for applied research, bringing the community into the research process. A research proposal Appelbaum worked on for UC DRN involved talking to farm and agricultural workers to determine problems and involve them in discussing solutions.

He also noted that many of the tools being developed to predict disasters use complicated models and are not reaching the communities who need it. An ongoing effort by UC DRN is to test tools being developed across campuses with local stakeholders and determine their usability.  

“There were a lot of researchers in the room – scientists, administrators. The folks that are going to carry on this legacy and continue the conversation and actually help solve some of the problems are our young folks, our students,” Armistead said. 

Some improvements to the event posed by attendees included gathering funding so more participants could attend and doing more student outreach.

“UC DRN is still pretty new. It’s a fledgling and I think this conference was really helpful in moving the organization forward and getting people’s interest piqued, maybe encouraging more people to get involved,” Armistead said.

A version of this article appeared on p. 4 of the Oct. 19, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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Lizzy Rager
Lizzy Rager (she/her) is the Assistant News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. She can be reached at lizzyrager@dailynexus.com