Steve Cain

Purdue Extension Disaster Specialist

Shortly after arriving at Purdue in 1987, Steve Cain became involved behind the scenes in disaster relief. He was part of the Ag Comm team that established a home base for the national media covering the 1988 Midwest drought, which proved to be the second most deadly and costly U.S. weather disaster. Later he lent support to other universities adversely affected by the 1993 floods, the nation's fifth most costly weather disaster.

Steve Cain

These days he's working on the front lines of disaster on both preparedness and relief. "I want to help lead Indiana communities in becoming more disaster resilient," says Cain, also the director of the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) Homeland Security Project and president of Indiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and on the board of directors for the national VOAD.

Unfortunately, he says, he's spending more time on disaster relief than preparation, working two months recently to help people recover from the spring tornadoes that tore through southern Indiana.

What is the EDEN Homeland Security Project?

EDEN is a network of land and sea grant universities -- of which Purdue is the Indiana member -- designed to support each other across state lines with education information before, during and after a disaster. I worked on an agro-terrorism paper in the summer of 2001 for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The paper went worldwide, giving the organization more recognition, and we received a $600,000 grant in spring 2002 to lead EDEN's agrosecurity efforts. For the last 10 years I've been managing the federal grant, which is about 50 percent of my job. The other half is working in Indiana to help communities either be better prepared for disaster or respond to and recover from disaster.

It seems like we're having more large-scale disasters than ever. What accounts for the increase?

I have been in the disaster business long enough to know that 2008 through 2012 has been the most disastrous few years in recent history. More important than climate change, I believe, is our interaction with the environment that's causing more disasters. If you put a million-dollar suburb on top of a mud hill and it rains, you've got a disaster. If that's not there and it rains, you've got a mudslide.

What did you do when the tornadoes hit southern Indiana last spring?

The morning after the Friday tornado, I went directly to the emergency operations center in Sellersburg, just south of Henryville. I didn't leave for the next two weeks, putting in 15-hour days seven days a week. Part of my job was to alleviate some of the chaos. In my role as Indiana VOAD president I helped with the volunteer and donations' management. For example, in the emergency operations center, we were getting reports that people were dropping off donated goods at the I-65 rest stop, a couple miles north of Henryville. It was chaotic and any more rain could have destroyed much of that stuff. I worked with VOAD groups to set up a donations warehouse. We accepted millions of dollars worth of donations at the warehouse, which were then redistributed to disaster survivors.

I also worked with other agencies to handle the unsolicited volunteers. Within the first week and a half we managed about $1.5 million worth of volunteer hours in tree removal, debris cleanup and such. This was heralded as one of the best-run volunteer tornado responses. My other role was to help the community understand how they were going to recover. I helped set up a long-term recovery committee and brought in experts. Now they have three long-term recovery committees helping those five Indiana counties.

What message do you want to get across to people who've had their world turned upside down?

In that situation we're trying convince people that they are survivors and not victims. That's a psychological attitude and we're trying to get them to see that they can move forward.

You're now working on proactive measures to manage the current drought recovery. How significant is the drought?

Economically, when this drought is over it will be the first- or second-largest weather disaster to hit the United States. The pandemic back in 1918 killed almost 70,000 people, so you have to respect that in terms of number of people. But the economic damage from this drought could be larger than Hurricane Katrina. The drought is insidious in that it's so slow-moving you just don't see it.

You seem pretty passionate about your job. What do you get out of it personally?

At the simplest level, my job is not boring. When I wake up in the morning, I have no trouble going into work. If you get to make a difference and it has positive outcomes, then the managing the stress level is all worth it.