Master’s students learn lessons on disaster recovery research from Chile's devastating 2018 wildfire

October 03, 2019

Shoshana Sheinfeld and Grace Dickinson, both dual degree students pursuing a master’s in urban planning and in public health at Columbia, spent eight weeks in Chile to study disaster recovery in the context of Santa Olga, a community which in 2018 experienced the country’s worst wildfire in modern history.

At the beginning of the year, during a studio course directed by Professor Malo Hutson while at the Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning (GSAAP), both students traveled to Chile to get to know the local reality. The work most recently carried out, which emerged from the previous visit, explored various aspects of resilience, social cohesion, agency and social reconstruction following a natural disaster.

In collaboration with Hutson, Dickinson and Sheinfeld worked with colleagues at the Research Center for Integrated Disaster Risk Management (CIGIDEN) to specifically study the paradigms of women’s empowerment and health equality in post-disaster reconstruction Chile. They conducted interviews in Santiago with professionals who are researching community development and disaster recovery, with ONGs such as TECHO and Desafío Levantemos Chile and with public entities such as the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism (MINVU) and the National Emergency Office (ONEMI), as well as in-field in Santa Olga to visit the town and interview local residents, including women who lived through the disaster and recovery.

The two master’s students, who this school year began studies at the Mailman School of Public Health, also reviewed literature closely examining gender dynamics and health inequities within disaster management to better understand their role in facilitating community cohesion and reformation in the wake of catastrophe.

The project and inquiry are ongoing and will further a larger, long-term commitment in Santa Olga begun by Hutson. The two students are currently working towards writing and publishing in an academic journal on their experience and findings.

The research contributes to Hutson’s growing body of work, which is supported by a two-year grant from the President's Global Innovation Fund to study how Chile has responded to a large increase in natural disasters over the past ten years, including wildfires.