UD student Lucia Velotti conducts fieldwork in tornado stricken Oklahoma.

Learning from disaster

UD graduate students deployed to Oklahoma in aftermath of tornadoes

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4:10 p.m., June 26, 2013--A flower bulb sits in the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center (DRC), ready to bloom into a beautiful yellow flower, a living symbol of resilience and hope, extracted from an area of devastation.

Six UD graduate students from the DRC — the world’s oldest center devoted to the study of the social science of disasters — deployed to tornado stricken Oklahoma last month to conduct fieldwork and returned to Delaware with a wealth of data and some profound stories.

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Danielle Nagele and Lucia Velotti arrived in Oklahoma about one week after the first tornado struck. As a team, they traveled along the tornado’s path to study the human reaction to the devastation.

“We were looking for people to talk about their experience,” said Velotti, a doctoral student in the School of Public Policy and Administration

The team conducted interviews with many of the residents they encountered, hoping to learn how those affected had received information about the tornado. Along the way, they also witnessed an impressive amount of hope, strength and community. 

“I was really impressed by the people we interviewed; they were really willing to talk,” said Nagele, a doctoral student in the disaster science and management program

During their fieldwork, Nagele and Velotti encountered a resident standing in the debris of her house. They interviewed her as usual, but noticed she was digging something up from the rubble. As the team inquired to her actions, the resident explained that she was recovering flower bulbs from her garden with hopes of distributing them around the country. 

“They were the only things that had been left from her house,” said Velotti.

The team returned to Delaware with one of the bulbs — the very one that now sits in the DRC.

“She wanted some piece of her property to continue growing,” said Nagele. “She was hoping her flowers would bloom across the country.”

Perishable data

Some of the most important work coming out of DRC over the past five decades resulted from quick response work conducted by graduate students, according to Tricia Wachtendorf, associate professor of sociology and associate director of DRC.

“Many times, it is important to get into the field quickly to collect what we call ‘perishable data,’” said Wachtendorf, “including descriptions of the emerging and changing activities, documents for which there might not be copies in a few weeks and names of people involved in the efforts who might leave the area before we can conduct in-depth interviews.”

Alex Greer and Lauren Clay, both doctoral students in the disaster science and management program, comprised the first quick-response team to deploy to Oklahoma following the initial tornado.

The pair traveled to Moore and Oklahoma City to conduct research on the mental health response effort, looting concerns, materials convergence and volunteer coordination. 

Clay and Greer found a wealth of volunteer organizations, including major brands such as Tide and Kellogg, as well as faith based organizations and major insurance companies, offering assistance in devastated areas. 

“The damage was pretty intense,” said Clay. “You could clearly see the path where the tornado struck.” 

Conducting research in a disaster area provided the team with valuable learning opportunities.

“It taught us about fieldwork, how to make connections — and how to balance being a researcher and a person,” said Greer.

Clay and Greer departed the Oklahoma area the day before the El Reno tornado struck on May 31. Nagele and Velotti weren’t so lucky; the two were about to depart on their ride home — after a delayed initial flight — when a flight attendant instructed passengers to immediately exit the plane. 

All passengers were ushered into an underground area where they waited out the severe weather. 

“There was no panicking,” said Velotti of the atmosphere. “The airport officials were constantly updating us on the situation.” DRC research has repeatedly shown that widespread panic is rare after disasters. 

Maggie Nelan and Sam Penta, the third team of DRC researchers, were driving back to their hotel in Oklahoma after a day of fieldwork when they received warning of the El Reno tornado. 

The two made it back to their hotel where they took shelter with other guests and tried to keep loved ones updated on their safety.

“People may have been concerned but everyone was still pretty calm,” said Penta, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice.

Nelan and Penta had arrived in Oklahoma earlier to collect data on the mass quantities of incoming donations for various stricken areas.

After extensive research, the team began to see some emerging trends on the donation circuit. 

“There was an overwhelming amount of bottled water being donated,” said Penta. So much, in fact, that stacks of bottled water were being used to designate traffic lanes in one donation location. 

“There were a lot of jokes going around about how people were thirsty and there was no water,” said Nelan, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. “It was obvious that people were trying to find humor in the situation.”

Value of research 

All six graduate students made it home safely, but their time in Oklahoma will likely stay with them — both personally and professionally — for quite some time to come. 

“There’s shock, tragedy, sadness and there’s hope,” said Nelan. “In the research role, there’s the desire to try and help. More experience in disaster zones will make us more effective in our jobs.”

The research in Oklahoma was part of new and existing projects at the center. 

“One of the wonderful things about the center is the huge network of colleagues and alumni around the country and, indeed, around the world,” said Wachtendorf about the DRC, which relocated from Ohio State University to UD in 1985. 

While in Oklahoma, the student researchers were able to connect with DRC alumni who are now faculty and disaster scholars at Oklahoma State University. 

Article by Kelley Bregenzer

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