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‘In the Midst of Chaos, There Is Hope’

Daniel Dodgen ’86 helps communities cope with disaster.

As director of the Office for At-Risk Individuals, Daniel Dodgen ’86 helps to provide psychological support to individuals affected by natural and man-made disasters.
As director of the Office for At-Risk Individuals, Daniel Dodgen ’86 helps to provide psychological support to individuals affected by natural and man-made disasters.

As he drove along the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, USC College alumnus Dr. Daniel Dodgen witnessed destruction the likes of which he had never seen.

"The scope of the disaster was unimaginable -- whole forests flattened, highways ripped from the ground, and entire towns destroyed," he said. “TV coverage couldn’t capture what mile after mile of devastation looks like.”

However, Dodgen, who earned his bachelor’s in psychology and Spanish in 1986, had come to assess a different kind of damage. As the emergency coordinator for the federal mental health agency, his job was to understand and coordinate national mental health services for residents of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina.

This was far from the first disaster he encountered during his career. A trained Red Cross disaster mental health worker, Dodgen was involved in psychological support after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.

Since 2007, Dodgen has served as director of the Office for At-Risk Individuals, a part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The office is primarily concerned with persons who have extra functional needs, either mental or physical, which could make it difficult to access emergency services after a disaster.

“After a large scale emergency, people often experience some psychological distress,” he said, “and not all members of the community know how or are able to access emergency medical services.”

The Office for At-Risk Individuals prepares for and responds to the physical and psychological effects of natural and man-made disasters and makes certain that no one is prevented from receiving help because of other limitations. In cooperation with ASPR, Dodgen and his colleagues plan and execute any extra steps that may needed  to ensure that medical help is readily available for all community members.

“Each individual is important when thinking about preparedness and response to emergencies,” Dodgen said.

Growing up and going to school in Southern California prepared Dodgen for emergency response. “I lived through earthquakes, wildfires and the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict,” he said, “so I learned about disasters.”

His involvement in community life around USC was an early indicator of his career path. As a student at USC, he lived off campus and volunteered in the surrounding neighborhood through the Joint Educational Project housed in USC College.

“Living in what was then called South Central L.A. taught me a lot about the importance of every member of a community,” he said. “The people in the USC area were my friends and neighbors.”

The years that followed have reinforced for Dodgen the incredible resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of community in the face of tragedy.

In the aftermath of every disaster he has experienced, Dodgen noticed that despite incredible devastation, there was also a tremendous sense of unity.

“People really band together to help one another,” he said. “In the midst of chaos, there is hope.”