Disaster Relief




We opened this book with three engineers (William LeMessurier, Roger Boisjoly, and Frederick C. Cuny) whose work is regarded by many as ethically exemplary. Here we will discuss the remarkable story of Frederick C. Cuny in greater detail.

Among the 24 recipients of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowships for 1995 was Frederick C. Cuny, a disaster relief specialist. The fellowship program is commonly referred to as a "genius program," but it is characterized by MacArthur executives as a program that rewards "hard-working experts who often push the boundaries of their fields in ways that others will follow." The program, says Catherine Simpson, director of the awards program, is meant to serve as "a reminder of the importance of seeing as broadly as possible, of being willing to live outside of a comfort zone and of keeping your nerve endings open."

Cuny’s award was unusual in two respects. First, at the time the award was announced, his whereabouts was unknown, and it was feared that he had been executed in Chechnya. Second, he was an engineer. Most MacArthur awards go to writers, artists, and university professors.

The first major engineering project Cuny worked on was the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport. However, attracted to humanitarian work, he undertook disaster relief work in Biafra in 1969. Two years later, at age 27, he founded the INTERTECT Relief and Reconstruction Corporation in Dallas. INTERTECT describes itself as "a professional firm providing specialized services and technical assistance in all aspects of natural disaster and refugee emergency management--mitigation, preparedness, relief, recovery, reconstruction, resettlement--including program design and implementation, camp planning and administration, logistics, vulnerability analysis, training and professional development, technology transfer, assessment, evaluation, networking and information dissemination." INTERTECT also prides itself for its "multi-disciplinary, flexible, innovative, and culturally-appropriate approach to problem-solving." Obviously, such an enterprise requires the expertise of engineers. But it also must draw from social services, health and medical care professionals, sociology, anthropology, and other areas.

Although trained as an engineer, Fred Cuny was apparently comfortable working across disciplines. As an undergraduate he also studied African history. So, it is understandable that he would take a special interest in the course of the conflict between the Nigerian and Biafran governments in the late 1960's. In 1969 he announced to the Nigerian minister of the interior, "I’m from Texas. I’m here to study the war and try to suggest what can be done to get in humanitarian aid when it’s over." Rebuffed by the minister, Cuny then flew to Biafra and helped organize an airlift that provided short term assistance to the starving Biafrans.

Cuny learned two important lessons from his Biafran work. First, food distribution in disaster relief often pulls people from their homes and working areas to distribution centers in towns and airports. Cuny commented, "The first thing I recognized was that we had to turn the system around and get people back into the countryside away from the airfield." Second, Cuny realized that public health is a major problem, one that can effectively be addressed only through careful planning. This requires engineering efforts to, for example, build better drains, roads, dwellings, and so on. At the same time, Cuny realized that relatively few engineers were in relief agencies: hence, the founding of INTERTECT. Concerned to share his ideas with others, in 1983 Cuny published Disasters and Development (Oxford University Press), which provides a detailed set of guidelines for planning and providing disaster relief. A major theme of his book is that truly helpful relief requires careful study of local conditions in order to provide long-term assistance.

Despite its small size, since its founding in 1971, INTERTECT has become involved in relief projects in nearly 70 different countries. An especially daring project was the restoration of water and heat to a besieged section of Sarajevo in 1993. Modules for a water filtration system were especially designed to fit into a C-130 airplane which was flown from Zagreb (Croatia’s capital) into Sarajevo. (Cuny commented that there were only 3 inches to spare on each side of the storage area.) In order to get the modules unnoticed through Serbian checkpoints, they had to be unloaded in less than 10 minutes.

Clearly, the preparation and delivery of the modules required careful planning and courage in execution. However, prior to that someone had to determine that such a system could be adapted to the circumstances in Sarajevo. When Cuny and his associates arrived in Sarajevo, for many the only source of water was from a polluted river. The river could be reached only by exposing oneself to sniper fire, which had already injured thousands and killed hundreds. So, residents risked their lives to bring back containers of water whose contaminated contents posed additional risks. Noting that Sarajevo had expanded downhill in recent years, and that the newer water system had to pump water uphill to Old Town Sarajevo, the Cuny team concluded that there must have been an earlier system for Old Town. They located a network of old cisterns and channels still in good working order, thus providing them with a basis for designing and installing a new water filtration plant. This $2.5 million project was funded by the Soro Foundation, which also provided $2.7 million to restore heat for more than 20,000 citizens of Sarajevo.

Asked about his basic approach to disaster relief, Cuny commented: "In any large-scale disaster, if you can isolate a part that you can understand you will usually end up understanding the whole system." In the case of Sarajevo, the main problems seemed to center around water and heat. So, this is what Cuny and his associates set out to address. In preparing for disaster relief work, Cuny was from the outset struck by the fact that medical professionals and materials are routinely flown to international disasters, but engineers and engineering equipment and supplies are not. So, his recurrent thought was, "Why don’t you officials give first priority to, say, fixing the sewage system, instead of merely stanching the inevitable results of a breakdown in sanitary conditions?"

It is unusual for engineers to receive the sort of public attention Fred Cuny has. We tend to take for granted the good work that engineers do. Insofar as engineers "make the news," more likely than not this is when an engineering disaster has occurred, a product is subjected to vigorous criticism, or an engineer has blown the whistle. Fred Cuny’s stories are, largely, stories of successful humanitarian ventures.

Fred Cuny’s untimely, violent death was tragic. In April 1995, while organizing a field hospital for victims in the conflict in Chechnya, Fred Cuny, two Russian Red Cross doctors, and a Russian interpreter disappeared. After a prolonged search, it was concluded that all four were executed. Speculation is that Chechans may have been deliberately misinformed that the four were Russian spies. Cuny’s recent New York Review of Books article, "Killing Chechnya," was quite critical of the Russian treatment of Chechnya, and it gives some indication of why his views might have well have antagonized Russians. Already featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker Magazine, and The New York Review of Books, Cuny had attained sufficient national recognition that his disappearance received widespread attention and immediate response from President Clinton and government officials. Reports on the search for Cuny and his colleagues regularly appeared in the press from early April until August 18, 1995, when his family finally announced that he was now assumed dead.

Many tributes have been made to the work of Fred Cuny. Pat Reed, a colleague at INTERTECT, was quoted shortly after Cuny’s disappearance: "He’s one of the few visionaries in the emergency management field. He really knows what he’s doing. He’s not just some cowboy." At the Moscow press conference calling an end to the search, Cuny’s son Chris said, "Let it be known to all nations and humanitarian organizations that Russia was responsible for the death of one of the world’s great humanitarians." William Shawcross fittingly concludes his article, "A Hero For Our Time":

At the memorial meeting in Washington celebrating Fred’s life it was clear that he had touched people in a remarkable way. He certainly touched me; I think he was a great man.

The most enduring memorials to Fred are the hundreds of thousands of people he has helped--and the effect he has had, and will have, on the ways governments and other organizations try to relieve the suffering caused by disasters throughout the world.


An Afterword

It is certainly appropriate to make special note of extraordinary individuals such as Frederick C. Cuny for special praise. His life does seem heroic. However, we would do well to remember that even heroes have helpers. Cuny worked with others, both at INTERTECT and at the various other agencies with whom INTERTECT collaborated. There are unnamed engineers in Sarajevo with whom he worked. For example, his Sarajevo team was able to locate the old cisterns and channels through the assistance of local engineers (and historians). Local engineers assisted in installing the water filtration system.

Furthermore, once the system was installed, the water had to be tested for purity. Here a conflict developed between local engineers (as well as Cuny and specialists from the International Rescue Committee) and local water-safety inspectors who demanded further testing. Convinced that they had adequately tested the water, the local engineers, Cuny and the International Rescue Committee were understandably impatient. However, the cautious attitude of the water-safety experts is understandable as well. Muhamed Zlatar, deputy head of Sarajevo’s Institute for Water, commented: "The consequences of letting in polluted water could be catastrophic. They could be worse than the shelling. We could have 30,000 people come down with stomach diseases, and some of them could die." Without presuming who might have been right, we might do well to remember Fran Kelsey, the FDA official who, in 1962, refused to approve Thalidomide until further testing was done. That is, in our rush to do good, caution should not be thrown to the winds.