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“Joplin Impact Project” Shows How Victims Cope with Tragedy

Bailey, Blake, JSB , and Morgan with family

Between August and October of last year, Drury University psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Silva Brown and seven of her students researched how victims of the May 22ndtornado in Joplin dealt with the physical, mental and emotional stress. KSMU’s Samuel Crowe spoke with Silva Brown and two of her students, and has this report.

Silva Brown says the goal of the study, called the Joplin Impact Project, is to identify which methods the resilient victims are using to deal with the stress - whether it be a church, family members, or exercise – and promote those methods so that current and future victims of natural disasters will know how to deal with tragedy.

“What we want to do is be able to identify those coping tools that resilient people have. We want to be able to tell that to health professionals, whether it be a physician or a psychiatrist or a counselor and get those health professionals on board with this information and have them utilize that for when a disaster survivor walks into their office or when they encounter one immediately post-disaster,” Brown said.

Brown was studying for her doctorate at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. She helped research how those victims were affected by the storms and how they adapted to life afterward. While both the Joplin tornado and the Louisiana hurricanes were devastating, she anticipates the rates of psychological illnesses in Joplin residents will be higher than the hurricane victims.

“Katrina and Rita had mental preparation. They were able to know that it was coming, they had days notice, they were able to gather their supplies. With this, there’s absolutely no warning. They don’t know it’s coming, and they’re living it while it hits. They’re in their home or their car, they’re in the high school, and it is touching down, while Katrina survivors are watching it on television,” Silva Brown said.

So in August, Brown and her students created surveys that measured anxiety, depression, health, and methods of coping. An impact questionnaire asked for the victim’s location during the storm and the details of his or her experience. They took these surveys and headed off to Joplin, where they interviewed 89 participants at Misti’s Mission, a local clearinghouse for donated goods.

Junior psychology and criminology major Blake Herd says the survey questions were worded in a way that the victims didn’t have to talk; they could just write their answers. Yet, he was surprised that the people did want to talk. He shared one touching story he heard about an elderly woman and her daughter who survived the storm.

“She couldn’t get downstairs whenever she heard the tornado sirens because she was elderly and her daughter wasn’t strong enough to carry her downstairs. So she ended up getting in her bathtub, and then the tornado hit and ripped the roof off her house. Her daughter ended up having to run and cover her mom in the bathtub and actually lay on top of her while things were hitting her to keep her mom safe,” Herd said.

This family even found their dog safe and sound after the tornado. Junior psychology major Melanie Messick also heard stories about pets that survived.

“Little stories like that where they lost everything, but they’re still so excited to have their little pet back. It just gives you hope that you can find good in such an awful situation,” Messick said.

Silva Brown says it’s important to search for a silver lining – the good that can come with such a tragedy. She admits many tornado survivors are suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but at least they’re surviving. Her goal is to get the study published and promote healthy surviving. She says the full report will be finished in the spring. For KSMU News, I’m Samuel Crowe.