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UD student Lucia Velotti conducts fieldwork in tornado-stricken Oklahoma for the University's Disaster Research Center.
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.
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
"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."
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
UD student Sam Penta takes notes at a large-scale donation center set up to help tornado victims in Moore, Okla.
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
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
"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
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
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