Volunteerism and Disaster Recovery

René P. Kastner and Thomas Tröbinger from the University of Graz are researching their Master’s thesis in sociology in New Orleans as CenterAustria Junior Fellows.

Kastner (left), Troebinger

Kastner (left), Troebinger

Since February 2009 the two sociology students Kastner and Tröbinger have been working on their joint comparative research project on volunteerism in disaster recovery efforts in Austria and the United States. Their emphasis is on two case studies -- New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Lower Austria after the floods in 2006.

The two aspiring sociologists are focusing their research on how large numbers of volunteers were integrated into disaster recovery management after these catastrophic events. How can the smart direction of enthusiastic volunteers by specialized government agencies (like FEMA) be utilized in supplementing successful disaster recovery management in the future?

Investigating the motivations and the social background of volunteers is a crucial part of their research. The research methodology of the two young sociologists rests on precise social science data gathering both through qualitative interviews with experts and volunteers in disaster management as well as a specially designed online survey instrument.

Kastner and Tröbinger just started an online survey in cooperation with the Austrian Red Cross and the national Austrian radio station “Hitradio Ö3”. The target group of this survey are some 25,000 volunteers all over Austria who have signed up online as the core of volunteer members of “Team Austria”. The purpose of the “Team Austria” is to direct the volunteers wherever and whenever they are urgently needed after disasters such as the recent floods in Austria.

An online database with personal information on this army of volunteers already exists in Austria. They can easily be directed about where their services are needed and effectively deployed in disaster areas. 

Their initial research shows that similar disaster recovery concepts and volunteer networks already exist in the United States. As a result of the media coverage during and after Katrina, Kastner and Tröbinger presumed that American disaster volunteerism was predominantly characterized by spontaneous volunteering rather than organized volunteer networks.

One of the most prominent differences between American and Austrian volunteerism is the fact that in the U.S. churches and NGOs play a remarkable role in organizing voluntary efforts in advance of disasters such as hurricanes occurring.

The two young Austrian researchers hope that a pragmatic exchange of knowledge, data and experiences between New Orleans area institutions and “Team Austria” will lead to more efficient use of volunteers in disaster recovery on both sides of the Atlantic. Both sides can learn from each other.