Current Research Projects

Crisis Leadership for COVID-19

PCL faculty and research associates are leading and contributing to several initiatives on the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work includes:

  • publishing policy briefs on how leaders can navigate the myriad challenges associated with the pandemic and its fallout;
  • convening town hall sessions that allow alumni of our executive education programs on emergency management and homeland  to discuss and share their experiences from the front lines of the response; and
  • advising elected officials and other senior leaders as they seek to guide their organizations and communities through the many different aspects of the crisis. 

Command Under Attack

Building off of lessons learned from our examination of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, PCL faculty and research affiliates are examining the responses to multiple terrorist attacks in urban environments, including the November 2015 multi-site attacks in Paris, France; the December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California; and the June 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. By identifying strategies to stop the shooting, stop the dying, and start the healing as quickly and effectively as possible, researchers are working to support the efforts of cities around the world as they seek to avert future attacks and lessen the consequences of those that do occur.

Emergency Preparedness in Transportation

With funding from the US Department of Transportation's New England University Transportation Center, PCL conducts research on emergency preparedness within the United States' transportation sector. This research initiative examines emergency evacuation planning in major metropolitan regions; the integration of the transportation sector into the broader emergency management community, including the adoption of the National Incident Management System; and other transportation-specific issues related to preparing for, mitigating against, responding to, and recovering from natural disasters and other security threats.

Asia Disaster Management

PCL conducts extensive research on how disasters and emergencies unfold and are managed in several Asian countries, including China, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Nepal, and Vietnam. PCL’s examination of community and government responses to public health emergencies, natural disasters and barriers to crisis readiness provide potential options  for future risk reduction and advance recovery planning in the region. Specific initiatives include:

  • The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami: Disaster Response and Recovery:  Since 2012, a research team led by PCL faculty co-director Arnold Howitt has been examining how Japan responded to and continues to recover from the massive earthquake and tsunami, and the accompanying nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, that struck the country's Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.
  • The 2015 Gorkha Earthquake: Disaster Response and Recovery: PCL researchers are partnering with the Asia Foundation, other Harvard affiliates, and NGO representatives to examine Nepal's experience responding to and recovering from the 2015 Gorkha earthquake that had serious consequences for both urban and rural areas of the country. The researchers have provided recommendations to senior national government officials and military officers and published the policy brief Disaster Preparedness and Response During Political Transition in Nepal.
  • From the Management of Crisis to the Governance of Risk: Time for a Paradigm Shift?: Along with Tsinghua University's Center for Crisis Management Research and the China Institute for Reform and Development (CIRD), the Program on Crisis Leadership sponsored this January 2017 conference in Haikou City, Hainan Province, China. Participants from multiple countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America discussed their research on policies and strategies for managing risk and safety in a variety of contexts and settings.
  • The Harvard University Disaster Management in Asia Project: PCL co-led a university-wide seminar series on a variety of issues related to disaster management in Asia in collaboration with the Harvard University Asia Center. The effort brought together leading scholars to examine disaster impacts in the region and to consider policy strategies for improving the disaster loss cycle in emerging Asian nations where catastrophic events strike with increasing frequency.
  • The 2nd Annual Asia Public Policy Forum: Disaster Management in Asia: In May 2012, PCL co-sponsored an international conference that brought together academics, government officials, and members of the business and NGO communities from across Asia involved in issues relating to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. More than a dozen countries were represented at the forum, which took place in Singapore and was jointly organized by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. The Harvard University Asia Center also served as a co-sponsor of the event.
  •  China’s 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake Recovery Assessment: In collaboration with Beijing Normal University and the School of Social Policy and Management, PCL faculty examined disaster recovery effectiveness in the wake of the devastating 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Government operations; mobilization of community and volunteer resources; and, repopulation dynamics were topics of study in this initiative.

Swiss Reinsurance Research Initiative

SwissRe’s involvement in managing risk calls for subject matter expertise to craft in-depth analysis of the economic and social consequences of disasters and countervailing measures to reduce their impacts. PCL is partnering with SwissRe to observe systemic drivers affecting responses to crisis and to consider approaches that could yield less post-event damage and social harm.

Acting in Time Against Landscape-Scale Disasters

Under the leadership of former Harvard Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood, the Acting in Time initiative harnessed the capabilities of HKS and the university as a whole to examine why particular problems such as mobilizing crisis resources, bridging the knowledge gap in public health, and confronting health care reform are not addressed.

The Program on Crisis Leadership directed two Acting in Time research projects:

  • Acting in Time Advance Disaster Recovery Project: HKS faculty and staff researched and disseminated best practices in disaster recovery; made policy recommendations on how to prepare in advance for recovery; and facilitated ways for governments to make policy changes to support these efforts. Elements included advising advance recovery planning initiatives in the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles and conducting action research on recovery processes in a select mix of communities affected by landscape-scale disasters around the world, including New Orleans, Louisiana; Christchurch, New Zealand; the Tohoku region of Japan; towns and villages affected by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami in Chile; and Nepal, in the aftermath of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake.
  • “Taming the Horsemen of the Modern Apocalypse” Project: A research team of senior HKS faculty members focused on the challenge of acting in time to mitigate and to respond to the consequences of a broad array of landscape-scale disasters – hurricane, fire, flood, earthquake, accident, pandemic outbreak, and acts of terrorism. Using Hurricane Katrina as a “benchmark,” the team reviewed the likely consequences, in the context of existing state of readiness, of this set of disasters and considered what broad spectrum, all-hazards forms of response would be most appropriate for preparing for them.

Affiliated Research Projects

The Broadmoor Project

Rebuilding New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is among the most complex domestic policy challenges that American government has ever faced. Using innovative approaches to governance through broad-based civic engagement, disaster recovery success is newly defined through collaboration among the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Broadmoor: New Orleans Recovery Project, founded by PCL Senior Fellow Doug Ahlers, gives Harvard students the opportunity to work with neighborhood partners on repopulation, education, housing, and economic development as part of the city's ongoing recovery efforts. The project includes the development of HKS case studies for use in courses examining recovery management; the sponsoring of community forums; and funding for post-Katrina research by HKS faculty and affiliates.

A key outcome of the project is the guidebook Lessons from Katrina. Based on the Broadmoor recovery experience, the document provides a phase-by-phase analysis of the planning and implementation process for neighborhood redevelopment.

Recupera Chile

The Recupera Chile project consists of a coalition of academic, non-profit, and private and public sector organizations dedicated to advancing community-based recovery in the aftermath of the 2010 Chilean earthquake and tsunami. Working in tandem with a set of communities affected by the disaster, the project focuses on the social, built, economic and cultural/heritage dimensions of the recovery process. PCL Faculty affiliate Doug Ahlers founded Recupera Chile in collaboration with colleagues at Harvard and other academic institutions, along with governmental and nongovernmental partners in Chile.

Partnership Projects

California Earthquake Response and Planning Training

Working with the city governments of San Diego and Los Angeles, California, PCL faculty and staff train interdisciplinary groups of senior leaders in crisis management and recovery best practices. The effort identifies the skills and systems used in crisis situations; assesses how courses of action are established; and explores how complex bureaucracies can prepare effectively for the unexpected.research by HKS faculty and affiliates.

Professional Activities

Department of Homeland Security Quadrennial Review

PCL Faculty Co-Director Dutch Leonard served on the Senior Advisory Committee for the U.S. government's first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review.

World Economic Forum

PCL Faculty Co-Directors Arnold Howitt and Dutch Leonard serve on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Mitigation of Natural Disasters. This international initiative convenes leading global experts on extreme events to develop strategic, comprehensive approaches to social risk.

Tsinghua University

PCL Faculty Co-Director Arnold Howitt serves on the International Advisory Board for the Institute of Public Safety Research at Tsinghua University.


Hurricane Katrina

Through HKS’s Broadmoor: New Orleans Recovery Project, students work with neighborhood partners on repopulation, education, housing, and economic development. PCL's Advance Disaster Recovery Project applies lessons learned in Broadmoor to other disaster-prone areas of the country. FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino.