Skip to main content

Remarks at ENLACE Earthquake Reconstruction Project

Santiago, Chile

As prepared for delivery

One year ago, I was in Japan, on a trip much like my visit this week to Chile. I met with the prime minister and university leaders from that country, and spent time with Harvard alumni living there. So I have paid particularly close attention to the terrible events in Japan over the past two weeks. My heart goes out to the victims and their families and friends — and my deep appreciation goes out to the many people working so hard to cope with the aftermath.

When I hear about a natural disaster like the earthquake and tsunami that have devastated Japan, I find it almost impossible to comprehend the deep feelings of terror and loss on the part of the people who experienced the event. And it’s very hard as well to comprehend the huge and daunting task facing the people who now must regain their sense of balance, cope with their grief, pick up the pieces, and create something new in the wake of all that has been suddenly lost.

But, of course, many of you here — and many people throughout Chile — understand those things all too well. I have great admiration for the dedication and resilience you’ve shown as part of the reconstruction effort following last year’s earthquake and tsunami. And I’m proud that members of the Harvard community have invested their time and their expertise and their humane concern for others in helping Chile rebuild.

When disaster strikes, it’s heartening to see how people in our community consistently act on their desire to help. It can take many forms. Students organize fundraising events and urge their peers to send money to ease the suffering of the victims. We reach out to members of our own community who have family in the afflicted area to see if they need special help. This past week, people from across the University formed an alliance called “Harvard for Japan,” and together with the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, they are encouraging others to lend their support.

Within a few hours after the earthquake, the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis established a web portal to serve as a clearinghouse for vital geographic information about the earthquake — just as it did after the earthquake in Chile. Such data can help everyone from rescue workers on the scene to academics wanting to understand earthquakes and their impact more fully. Meanwhile, the Harvard School of Public Health convened medical and public health experts for a forum, which was webcast live, to share information about how large-scale relief operations can be organized.

These activities underscore the fact that the biggest impact that Harvard can have in the wake of disaster is rooted in its dedication to research, education, and service. The University can be a powerful force for good when the extraordinary knowledge and insight and energy and passion of our faculty and students and staff are focused on a complex situation that confronts other people in need. And whatever we can hope to achieve depends on our working in close partnership with others — to understand both how we can help in the immediate circumstances, and what the experience of dealing with a specific case can teach us about other events still to come.

Some of you may know of the work done by faculty and students from our Kennedy School of Government in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans, after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Working with community leaders, they have brought their knowledge to bear on helping officials formulate a redevelopment plan — which includes launching a charter school and opening a public library. What they’re doing can make a real difference to the future of a particular community. And, beyond that, it can help our faculty and students — and all of us — learn broader lessons about how to design and implement programs at a grassroots level and how to help a neighborhood in distress keep its focus on the importance of educating its young people.

When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, teams affiliated with Harvard and with the organization Partners In Health played a lead role in providing emergency medical care on the island. More than that, they helped lay the groundwork for a new teaching hospital that holds promise to improve the quality of health care for generations to come. Public health experts from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative were on the ground almost immediately after the disaster to help direct relief efforts.

Here in Chile, I am grateful to all the Harvard faculty members and alumni who have made important contributions to date in different facets of the reconstruction effort. I especially want to thank Daniel Hojman of the Kennedy School and Luis Valenzuela, a graduate of our Design School, who are our co-chairs today. And I also would like to recognize and thank Jorge and Macarena Carroza and the Chilean Foundation for Restoration of the Arts — CREA — for their thoughtful support.

In reflecting on experiences in Chile and elsewhere, and in looking forward to today’s event, our faculty members have identified four areas in which they believe Harvard can make a significant difference, working in partnership with others:

• One concerns how to improve strategic long-term planning for large-scale emergency preparedness and recovery.

• Another focuses on how to achieve the coordinated reconstruction of communities affected by disasters — by marshaling people with expertise in public health, community mental health, and design, and drawing them into close partnership with local leaders and stakeholders.

• Another is centered on the interplay between direct involvement with community services and research focused on community organization.

• A fourth involves the broader opportunities for long-term collaborative research projects between Harvard and Chilean universities — as the recovery effort progresses and as challenging new avenues of inquiry emerge.

One of today’s participants, Mary Catherine Arbour of the Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Gazette that the official response to the earthquake in Chile was “pretty remarkable for how quick and coordinated it was. The trouble with a disaster,” she added, “is that you’re never going to be satisfied, even if you’re doing a good job — because it’s still a disaster.”

Never being satisfied is one of the attitudes that propels the most important education and research and that gives rise to the most creative and powerful public service.

I feel fortunate to be here today to help introduce the next stage in what has already been a strong and mutually beneficial partnership between Harvard and Chile.

And, together with all of you, I share the hope that by working in close concert, we can better understand the public health and mental health issues arising from devastating natural disasters; that we can consider design solutions that will limit the damage done by future disasters; and that we can carry forward efforts on various fronts to advance the reconstruction efforts here in Chile, in which all of you have been so thoughtfully and energetically engaged.

Thank you so much.

– Drew Gilpin Faust