Research

Tom is a narrative nonfiction writer and a sociologist in training. He has studied disasters and disaster recovery since 2005, and he began researching the New Orleans public education reform movement in 2011.

Machhu Dam Disaster: Tom worked with his college roommate Utpal Sandesara to write the book No One Had a Tongue to Speak, a social history of the Machhu Dam Disaster. Though the dam collapse was among the deadliest in history – it killed as many as 25,000 people – its causes were covered up and survivors’ stories were largely forgotten. Over eleven weeks of field research in India, Tom and Utpal interviewed dam engineers, first responders, inquiry commission members, and over a hundred flood survivors. Simultaneously, they combed through archives, photographing tens of thousands of pages of source material about the dam’s design and construction, the government’s response to the flood, and the ultimate coverup of the disaster’s causes.

The authors’ research captured the stories of flood survivors, highlighting the roles that caste, economic status, and geography played in people’s experiences of the flood and in their subsequent personal revoveries. By gaining access to classified government documents, the authors also uncovered the disaster’s true causes. Their inquiries prompted a fresh wave of local interest in the flood, including a major newspaper retrospective, an internationally televised news feature, and a widely viewed documentary. An Indian edition of No One Had a Tongue to Speak was published by Rupa Publications in April 2012. A Gujarati language translation is forthcoming.

New Orleans Neighborhood Recovery: Since 2007, Tom has studied neighborhood-based disaster recovery efforts in New Orleans. The story of the city’s residential recovery is at once inspiring and cautionary. In the months after the levee failures, residents realized that they could not count on government assistance to rebuild their communities. Turning to their neighbors, they banded together to spur their city’s recovery. In the process, they undertook some of the most innovative community-based development in American history.

To fill a vacuum of government leadership, New Orleans neighborhoods themselves became small governments. They ran their own schools, provided needy residents with social services, elected governing boards, operated their own police forces, coordinated the renovation of damaged housing, and funded their activities with self-taxing initiatives. Tom’s book We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina, tells the remarkable story of how this came to be. Drawing on years of participant-observation research and over a hundred interviews with residents, the book follows recovery efforts in five New Orleans neighborhoods: Broadmoor, Hollygrove, Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward, and Village de l’Est.

New Orleans School Reform: New Orleans has become what Walter Isaacson calls America’s “greatest education lab.” The city’s public schools have experienced a devolution of power and responsibility that parallels the governance trajectory of New Orleans neighborhoods. Nearly all New Orleans public school students now attend independently operated charter schools. Tom, who taught fifth and sixth grade writing at KIPP McDonough 15 School for the Creative Arts, is working on two projects related to this transformation. The first is a social history of changes made to the city’s schools since Hurricane Katrina. The second is a long-term ethnographic study that follows students during their senior year at several New Orleans high schools and then during their first year after graduation.