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High School Student Inspired to Help After Experiencing Natural Disaster

Luis G. Alvarez

Luis G. Alvarez

By Mandy Carr, NYAS Staff

Luis G. Alvarez, 17, is a member of The Junior Academy at Colegio Integral Mesoamericano Patzicia in Guatemala; a volatile environment that is subject to earthquakes, tropical storms and volcanic eruptions. And on June 3, 2018, he experienced the eruption of Volcan de Fuego.

“I remember hearing something like rain falling on the leaves,” said Alvarez. “At first, I didn't recognize what it was, but then I realized it was ashes and sand, not rain. I told my parents, and we quickly got into the car and left.”

According to Reuters, more than 190 people were killed, many of whom died in their homes because they were unable to escape. That prompted Alvarez to do something about it. “This event had a pretty big impact on me. I wanted to do something so that more people would survive and recover from these traumatic experiences,” he said.

Alvarez came across The Junior Academy’s Natural Disasters: Relief & Recovery Challenge sponsored by the S&P Foundation from a Facebook ad, and saw an opportunity. He promptly completed the application form on Launchpad, the Academy’s collaboration platform and was selected by the project team leader to work on the Challenge with three other students from Hungary, Vietnam and the United States.

Using Hurricane Katrina as their case study, the students noticed that mental health was a serious side effect of the hurricane, and largely went untreated.

To address this deficit in disaster relief, the team created a smartphone-based community survey app to gather critical information in high-risk and disaster-prone areas that would provide a useful baseline for responders during a crisis. The survey collects information such as residents' financial and employment status, mindset, living habits and mental health. The information is then used to help tailor recovery efforts when a disaster strikes.

Like his team found in the Hurricane Katrina case study, many residents in Alvarez’s community suffered physiological damage following the volcanic eruption. He also found that his community wasn't prepared because they underestimated the devastation caused by the eruption and there was a lack of information surrounding the event. “We had radio service and a cellphone signal,” he said, “yet we were never made aware that the volcano had high levels of activity. All these factors combined to shape my contributions and suggestions during the project.”

According to Alvarez, while the survey solution is based on the Hurricane Katrina situation, its principles can be applied to all natural disaster preparation.

“Natural disasters are often socially and economically disastrous for communities,” said Carolyn C. Cavicchio, Director, Corporate Responsibility; Vice President, S&P Global Foundation. “The type of solution that these students developed has the potential to reduce valuable time and resources when disasters strike. Moreover Challenges like this help young people to develop and refine important problem-solving skills that are crucial in today’s workplace.”

To learn more about the New York Academy of Sciences Challenges visit nyas.org/junioracademy