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Norwich University students sit around a circular table, laptop computers open, to review data and plan strategy during a hurricane- damage mitigation exercise in October during Boston Policy Week.

With hurricane simulation, Boston Policy Week tests Norwich students’ disaster mitigation mettle

First went the sun, then came the rain; a dozen Norwich students were witnessing the eye of the hurricane. And oh, what a mess it would leave.

To show there’s no dealing like disaster dealing, a dozen Norwich University students recently attended Boston Policy Week to address a virtual hurricane’s fallout. In a three-day (ahem) whirlwind trip, the students participated in the storm simulation, visited five federal agencies and networked with alumni. The group included criminal justice majors Nathan Barbieri, Daniel DeRosa, Kristieann Desilvio, Julliet Muriel and Thomas Walsh, political science majors Sam Carlson, Molly Coltey, Joseph Gagnon and Faith Privett; psychology majors Sandra Carlsten and Lura Porter; and war-and-peace studies major Alexander Hutz.

It was the second annual iteration for Boston Policy Week, which the Peace and War Center and the College of Liberal Arts sponsored.

“Attempting to uphold the duties and roles of each of these personnel to create a plan for natural disaster was tough. It took a lot of teamwork within our group to communicate our roles and how we help each other out.”Nathan Barbieri, Norwich University criminal justice major

The storm scenario went like this. On Oct. 16, a tropical depression formed between Africa and the Windward Islands that evolved first into a tropical storm then into a Category 3 hurricane called Peter. As the storm system progressed, National Hurricane Center forecasters predicted a near miss for New England’s coastline. The storm’s track showed brushes with Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and possible strikes from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, north to the Maritimes in Canada and east well out to sea.

The storm gathered speed and its center moved closer to New England. On Oct. 19, forecasters rerated Peter as a Category 2 hurricane. Forecasters debated where the storm would strike; some models predicted a strike between Chatham, Massachusetts, and Watch Hill, Rhode Island; others foresaw a strike closer toward New York City.

Norwich University students discuss strategy during a hurricane disaster mitigation in October during Boston Policy Week. (Photo courtesy Dr. Yangmo Ku.)

As the storm’s track clarified, and the threat for southern New England, Long Island and New Jersey intensified, emergency response teams began hurricane preparations — evacuating of coastal regions, activating shelters and launching public information campaigns. Residents prepared for what could have been the worst storm in decades.

The storm hit landfall Oct. 22 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and traveled at 60 mph up the Connecticut River Valley, through Massachusetts and into Vermont. Historic structures, roads, bridges, utilities, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants and 12,000 homes were damaged.

Providence, Rhode Island, was hit particularly hard. Although the city had time to lower hurricane barriers, there was no holding back flooding caused by heavy rains and swelling of the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck, and Providence rivers.

Political science Professors Yangmo Ku, who helped organize Boston Policy Weeks this year and last, and Michael Thunberg joined School of Justice Studies and Sociology Professor David Sem as faculty on the excursion. In an email, Ku said Thunberg drew on his American politics expertise, ​emphasizing for students the constitutional restraints under which federal agencies operate. Sem, a criminal justice professor and former policy analyst, outlined decision making dynamics and federal agency interactions.

In a statement about the trip, Thunberg wrote that the Federal Emergency Management Agency-created exercise illustrated how applied academics, informed research and collaboration can enhance learning and decision making. The students addressed residents’ protection; communications; critical resource logistics and distribution; emergency public information and warning; and mass care. 

“Learning in the classroom provides an important foundational understanding of the structures of government and policy process,” Thunberg wrote, “but the College of Liberal Arts and the Peace and War Center recognize classroom engagement is not enough to prepare students for life after Norwich.”

Steering through the simulation

In the hurricane simulation, students, who’d been assigned a role at a federal agency before the trip, split into two multidisciplinary teams. The idea was showing that many agencies must act quickly, and collectively, to address devastating problems, especially when lives hang in the balance. 

The students started with partial information and adapted their planning as they visited sites — FEMA, the Coast Guard Sector Boston, the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI — and learned more. Desilvio said pressure and uncertainty forced the students to work collectively.

Norwich University students visited five federal agencies, including the Boston office of the Federal Emergency Management Association during Boston Policy Week in October. (Photo courtesy Dr. Yangmo Ku.)

Barbieri agreed with her. 

“Attempting to uphold the duties and roles of each of these personnel to create a plan for natural disaster was tough,” he said. “It took a lot of teamwork within our group to communicate our roles and how we help each other out.”

Students ultimately convened at the Federal Emergency Management Agency Operations Center in Boston to present a disaster relief policy to several FEMA coordinators. The students received final details on the hurricane’s damage and created a final plan to mitigate it.

Besides practicing team-building and collaboration, the students leveraged Norwich’s alumni network. Many of the university’s graduates work in the agencies the students visited and helped lead the exercise.

“The connections I made with alumni both at the agencies and outside over three days really show the impact that these opportunities have on students,” Desilvio said. 

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Norwich University admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.