“Confronting Catastrophe” with Dr. Julia Irwin

By LilyAnne Rodriguez

Professor Brendan Goff and Dr. Julia Irwin take questions from the audience.
Professor Brendan Goff and Dr. Julia Irwin take questions from the audience.

The implications of disaster relief, or lack of, from the U.S. to Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria can still be felt today. This natural disaster and its aftereffects have broadened an ongoing discussion that Dr. Julia Irwin has developed within her research.

“It is in the spirit of intellectual, interdisciplinary and institutional collaboration that we’ve invited Irwin to our campus to speak on U.S. disaster diplomacy,” said Professor Brendan Goff before inviting Dr. Julia Irwin on stage.

Irwin, who is associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, spoke with New College students and faculty on April 18 at Sainer Pavilion about the long-standing involvement the U.S. has had in disaster-stricken countries, specifically focusing in Europe and Latin America. Irwin’s research highlights “the place of humanitarian aid in twentieth-century U.S. foreign relations.”

Irwin began her lecture by citing the devastating earthquake that affected Haiti in 2010. Following this event, various news outlets posed questions to their readers to spark debate over the appropriate U.S. response to the earthquake.

“Far more was at stake in this discussion than simply the current crisis in Haiti,” Irwin said. “At a fundamental level, these questions, and the responses to them that would unfold, formed a conversation about what role the U.S. ought to play in both emergency and humanitarian relief, as well as longer-term development and recovery assistance throughout the entire world.”

The conversation then shifted to broader U.S. foreign policy concerns like national security, diplomacy, and strategic interests in the region. Participants also raised issues of national exceptionalism, moral responsibility and American global power. Despite growing concerns, the expression of the importance of foreign disaster assistance to U.S. foreign relations overpowered these issues.

“The central part of my book is really to interrogate how the perception that certain types of humanitarian crises, both natural and unpredictable, has influenced the nation of the U.S. and global responses to [the crises],” said Irwin.

Dr. Irwin then laid out the history behind international disaster aid, specifically citing the significance of World War II. Policymakers started to recognize the moral, diplomatic, and strategic importance of providing disaster aid. Irwin cites the increased ability to provide aid as being possible through “U.S. imperial geography.”

From Irwin’s discussion, it was clear that “overseas humanitarian crises have repeatedly punctuated the history of U.S. relations in the wider world.”

Dr. Julia Irwin’s campus visit to New College emerged from a collaboration between Goff and Associate Professor of Political Science Frank Alcock. Irwin’s talk was part of the Distinguished Lectureship series of the Organization of American Historians.

— LilyAnne Rodriguez is an intern in the Office of Communications and Marketing.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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