JOPLIN, Mo. —
Julian Potter is a graduate student in architecture from the University of Oregon. Danielle Simpson is an anthropology student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Jennifer Silva Brown is a psychology professor from Drury University.
Their interests are varied, but each sees something in Joplin after May 22: a real-world lab.
Potter is fascinated by urban planning in the wake of the worst tornado in more than 60 years.
Simpson is studying the role photographs play in families, society and in history.
Silva Brown and seven of her students want to know more about the psychological impact of the tornado on survivors.
They’re not the only ones studying Joplin, of course. Engineers, architects, building designers, meteorologists, relief organizations and others are hoping to learn lessons they can use to help the next city hit by a disaster.
Simpson said some her friends read an article about a local volunteer effort to reunite photographs with their owners following the storm, and she overhead their conversation while in a dorm.
“I thought, ‘That’s perfect’,” said Simpson, who attends Haverford College, a small liberal arts school near Philadelphia, where she is working on her senior thesis. She came to Joplin last week to visit with volunteers who are working on the “Lost Photos of Joplin” project. They have collected and processed 27,000 photos so far. The photos are archived physically at First Baptist Church in Carthage and digitally on Facebook and www.joplinrescuedphotos.org.
She also interviewed Angela Walters, founder of the “Lost Photos” project, and Margie Hayes, president of Operation Photo Rescue. The nonprofit set up shop in Joplin in October and is restoring 1,000 photos damaged by the storm.
Among issues Simpson is studying is the difference between the public and private domains, and how that issue can be navigated in instances such as the Joplin tornado, where invading a person’s privacy by posting photographs on a public forum may be necessary for their ultimate return.
“When Angela (Walters) is uploading photographs to the Internet, there are sonograms, babies in the NICU, tombstones. You’re putting those on the Internet. And yet, if you don’t, they can’t be returned to their owners. And those are the ones that are most important,” she said.
Simpson was approved for grant funding through the National Endowment for the Humanities, which also paid for her trip to Joplin so she can interview volunteers and survivors willing to share their stories about missing and reunited photographs.
Her analysis will go into a 40- to 60-page thesis.
“I want to explore what it means to people to get them back, or what it meant to them to lose their record,” she said. “There will be a whole section on the history of family photographs, the cultural ritual of recording life events.”
“There are so many people who are so interested in this; that’s why I’m so nervous. I want to get it right.”
Potter, from the University of Oregon, is using Joplin for his year-long thesis on rebuilding after a disaster.
“I am focusing on the community response to the tornado and how the community has changed, how urban planning and architecture can better suit the community after a tornado, and how buildings can be changed to better withstand tornadoes in terms of life safety and minimal property loss,” he said.
Once on the ground in Joplin, he conducted numerous interviews with building experts and survivors, and took photographs throughout the tornado zone.
“I’ve talked with school principals, with those who lost houses and are living in the FEMA parks; I’m interested in their stories and what they would like for the future.
“There are those who are still unsure about the future, about rebuilding, and there are those who are inspired to move forward. The demographic that is very inspired is the demographic I’m most interested in. My hope is to translate this energy into more community action and community unity. It’s quite incredible, I think.”
He saw the extent of the disaster as a unique opportunity.
“If it was smaller, it would not have changed people quite as much. This was so transformative,” he said. “I’ll be thinking about actual buildings, urban plans, putting a community back together ... coming here has given me a new perspective on everything.”
How Joplin tornado survivors have dealt with physical, mental and emotional stress is the focus of research conducted by the Drury team. The members call it the Joplin Impact Project.
As a graduate student, Silva Brown conducted research in Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast.
But this, she noted, is “dramatically different than other disasters.
“In Hurricane Katrina and Rita, people had the ability to prepare for days. They knew it was coming. They knew they could potentially lose their homes; they weren’t blindsided,” she said. “With Joplin, it was a whole new can of worms. In a matter of 20 minutes, your life was turned upside down.”
Last fall, she and her students interviewed and submitted surveys to 89 survivors of the May 22 tornado.
The 100-plus question surveys, which they administered to those who visited Misti’s Mission, a clearinghouse for donated goods, were used to ascertain if the victims were suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or other stress-related maladies.
They developed a storm impact metric, which asked survivors if they were in the storm’s direct path when it hit, whether they felt like they could have been hurt or perhaps killed, whether they had family members present and whether those family members had been hurt or killed. They also examined how survivors coped in the aftermath — be it through exercise, prayer, interaction with friends and family, or the use of drugs and alcohol.
“We’re trying to distinguish those who are struggling from those who are resilient and healthy,” said Silva Brown. “The ultimate goal is to understand which characteristics promote a healthy adjustment to post-disaster life.”
Those who completed surveys were given $25 gift cards. The students who administered the surveys, and now are coding and analyzing the data, also will write up the results. They say they took away real-world, hands-on research they and their professor described as “unparalleled.”
“It was completely different than anything we’ve ever done before,” said Blake Herd, a junior in psychology and criminology, noting that in previous studies they’ve used staff and students. “This year we were able to actually go out and do real field work, and it was completely different than I ever would have expected. It just changes the way you look at things.”
Silva Brown hopes to have a paper submitted for review for publication this school year.
“We’ll have results to talk about by May,” she said. “The research we’re doing in Joplin will help the survivors of the next large-scale disaster. We’re constantly learning.”