HRRC founder departs

Wenger returns to NSF, leaves
indelible legacy at Texas A&M


Last August, after almost 19 years of distinguished service to Texas A&M University, Dennis E. Wenger retired from his faculty post and returned to the National Science Foundation where he serves as director of two programs within the Directorate for Engineering’s Division of Civil, Mechanical & Manufacturing Innovation (ENG/CMMI) — the Infrastructure Systems Management and Hazard Response Program and the Information Technology and Infrastructures System Program.

Previously a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning since 1989, Wenger was the founding director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M’s the College of Architecture.

In January 1989, Wenger, the HRRC staff, and Phil Berke, a faculty member who had been instrumental in developing the HRRC proposal, and moved into the office suite the center still occupies: Langford C 106.

“Hiring Dennis brought instant recognition and visibility to the center because he was a well known and respected ‘disaster’ researcher,” said Walter Gillis Peacock, the current HRRC director. “Prior to joining the Texas A&M faculty, he had been co-director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, the oldest research center focusing on disasters and hazards in the United States.”

During Wenger’s eight-year tenure as HRRC director, from 1989 to 1997, the center expanded, undertaking research that contributed significantly to the understanding of hazard and disaster response and recovery.

One of the first National Science Foundation (NSF) grants Wenger received focused on the search and rescue operations that follow major disasters. In addition to fieldwork after the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, this project studied the evacuation of the World Trade Center after the first terrorist bombing in 1993.

Another memorable NSF-funded HRRC project, its first “Enabling Project,” was designed to create the next generation of hazards researchers. This initiative brought young faculty together with leading researchers in a mentoring program that facilitated their professional development as hazard researchers.

“It is hard to underestimate the revolutionary nature of this project, designed as it was to stimulate the creation of the human infrastructure necessary to carry out significant scientific research focused on disasters and hazards,” Peacock said. “Thanks to Dennis, the college and department, through the HRRC, assumed a central place in this process.”

Also, under Wenger’s guidance, the HRRC became one of only two United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Collaborative Centers in the world. The effort included a major project assessing the effectiveness of U.N. programs to promote disaster preparedness and prevention in the Caribbean.

The only such center in the United States, the HRRC has served the U.N. as a research and consulting agency with particular emphasis on national disaster plans and their implications for future development.

In addition HRRC director activities, Wenger also served 1990-93 as the first director for Texas A&M’s Urban and Regional Science Ph.D. program, which he helped restructure.

“He was a dedicated and talented teacher who earned a number of awards for teaching here at Texas A&M,” said Peacock. “The importance of teaching and mentoring students is palpable as he speaks so proudly of his formers students and the leadership roles they play in shaping hazards research, policy, and practice.”

Three of his former students include Carla Prater, now associate director of the HRRC, Gavin Smith, who headed recovery efforts following Katrina for the Governor of Mississippi and now works with the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Gabriella Vigo, who is helping the Federal Emergency Management Authority shape state mitigation programs throughout the southeastern United States.

Wenger’s last Ph.D. student, Kim Galindo, graduated in August 2007. Her dissertation was based on data collected as part of yet another of Wenger’s NSF-funded projects, examining the recovery processes in Cuero, Texas following the 1997 flood.

Wenger’s stature in the hazard and disaster field was recognized in 2001 when he was initially asked to join the NSF, as a ENG/CMMI program director.

“In this position he was instrumental in revitalizing not only social science funding within this division, but also in playing an important role in enhancing interdisciplinary research related to broader hazards and disaster issues,” Peacock said.

The importance of Wenger’s NSF work was demonstrated in two ways: First, they extended his stay as a program officer for an unprecedented four years, until 2005; and second, after a year’s hiatus in which he returned to Texas A&M, they offered him yet another opportunity, to serve in his current capacity a program director and continue his important and influential activities in shaping the direction and future of hazard and disaster research in the United States.

“The department, college, center, and most especially, the many students and faculty that had the pleasure and good fortune to work with and know Dennis during his time here at TAMU, were made so much the richer,” Peacock said. “We thank Dennis and wish him the very best in the future. He may not be here in person, but he certainly will remain here with us in spirit and legacy.”

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Dennis Wenger

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