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Anna Bruton

Student’s Summer Assignment Explores Front-Line
Disaster Response

Anna Bruton

Anna Bruton spent the summer of 2009 at Howard University researching the responsiveness of law-enforcement officers during the Hurricane Katrina crisis. Her assignment was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Scholarship and Fellowship Program and was administered by Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education. Photo courtesy of Anne McDonough, University of Maryland.

When calamity strikes—whether natural or manmade, hurricane or terrorist attack, large-scale or localized—the response of authorities on the front lines plays a critical role in determining the disaster’s effect on public safety and security.

In some cases, key responders such as law-enforcement officials shine as heroes, but at other times they either struggle to respond properly or even abandon their posts out of concern for their own safety and that of their families. Often, the difference between life and death hangs in the balance.

Anna Bruton explored this crucial issue during a summer 2009 assignment at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Scholarship and Fellowship Program. Her internship assignment took place at Howard University, a partnering institution in the National Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response (PACER), a DHS Center of Excellence. Ms. Bruton’s DHS Fellowship is administered by Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education.

The mission of PACER is “to improve the nation’s preparedness and ability to respond in the event of a high-consequence natural or manmade disaster, to alleviate the event’s effects by developing and disseminating best scientific practices.”

Hurricane Katrina was, of course, one such high-consequence event when it struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Looking back at the storm’s impact on people and communities presents a unique opportunity for researchers to study the response of public-safety officials upon whom society depends for help in the midst of crisis.

Bruton zoomed in on two aspects of a larger research project titled The Divergent Responses of Law Enforcement Officers in the Midst of Crisis: Katrina. She conducted background research to examine the role of the federal- and local-government response to the disaster in Gulfport, Miss., and she developed an annotated bibliography on “post abandonment and absenteeism” among front-line authorities during the storm and its destructive aftermath.

“The purpose of my research was to evaluate past disaster efforts to ensure that local, state and national agencies will be able to more effectively respond to future disasters,” Bruton said.

She had not realized the extent to which the Mississippi coast was severely devastated by Katrina. "I was also surprised at the number of law-enforcement officials who deserted their duties as a result of Katrina," she said.

Bruton brought strong credentials to her summer fellowship—research she conducted on a separate topic was presented to attendees of the Southern Sociological Conference in 2008, and she received a citation from the governor of Maryland for community service in 2003—and she relished the importance of her assignment at Howard.

“I absolutely loved this program and only wish the internship could have been longer,” she said. “I enjoyed conducting research with a group of very knowledgeable people and knowing that the work I completed will make a positive impact.”

Terri Adams-Fuller, a professor at Howard and Bruton's mentor for her summer assignment, applauded Bruton for tackling vital tasks that moved the research project forward. "Anna's work with the Howard/PACER research team played a critical role in the advancement of the project’s objectives," Adams-Fuller said.

Bruton—a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, working toward her master's in urban studies and planning—aspires to parlay her passion into a career as an attorney. Her dream is to make a positive difference by focusing on critical issues including emergency preparedness and disaster response, and especially on matters that affect her own African-American community.

“It is imperative that we evaluate past efforts and mistakes to ensure a better future,” she emphasized. “In life, mistakes must be learned from and not repeated.”

It is a powerful truth that Bruton takes to heart—and that she fully intends to take with her throughout her life and career.