Natural disasters impact a community even before they strike, and their effects can linger long after.

The University of Missouri System is working to promote discussion and research collaboration efforts to help support communities affected by disasters across the state.

At the UM System’s quarterly research summit Wednesday, 20 experts met in Memorial Union to present research on social, environmental and disaster resilience.

This theme is timely considering recent extreme weather events across the Midwest, said Mark McIntosh, MU vice chancellor of research and economic development and UM System vice president of research and economic development.

“The universities here in the UM System have an opportunity to dedicate their expertise to providing support for those citizens affected by these disasters,” McIntosh said.

Improving predictions of flooding effects

Some of Wednesday’s presentations focused on topics directly applicable to Missouri residents who are currently facing floodwaters.

Steven Corns, a Missouri University of Science & Technology associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering, is working with the Missouri Department of Transportation to more precisely predict flood outcomes in order to quickly inform road closures.

“What is Mother Nature’s next move going to be, what’s the next road they’re going to close?” Corns said during his presentation. “Can we come up with strategies based on this type of aspect, this type of tool to predict this road is going to be closed — here’s going to be our moves in the next 15 minutes.”

The project is funded by MoDOT and the Mid-American Transportation Center and ties together data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Geological Survey and MoDOT to inform its work.

The culmination of data is then combined with a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) method that uses lasers to survey land elevation, which can be used to produce digital elevation models. These maps allow Corns and his team to estimate water levels and predict how roads will be affected.

These computer models can work to predict the extent of floods, but there’s another piece of the puzzle — the social aspect of getting communities on board, Corns said.

“All the models in the world and the smart computer programs can make recommendations, but if people don’t buy into it, people are not going to follow it,” Corns said in an interview after the event. “People have to buy into it to prevent them from moving the barrier, going around the barrier, violating the posted recommendations.”

Using social media to inform and connect

Brian Houston, a University of Missouri associate professor of communication, may have the key to improving disaster communication.

Houston’s research focuses on how social and mobile media use can aid in disaster resilience.

Good disaster communication before, during and after the event is essential to disaster response and lessening some of its impact, Houston said during his speech.

Prior to immersive forms of media, only FEMA-type organizations had access to disaster communication. But today, social media platforms give the opportunity for communities impacted by natural disasters to broadcast updates across the nation.

“There’s really some power here that we don’t often think about in terms of social media,” Houston said after the event.

During his presentation, Houston focused on three social and mobile media uses: detecting and signaling disasters, providing situational awareness and reconnecting people affected by disasters. Houston offered the example of the tornado in 2011 that devastated Joplin and the community’s use of Facebook to reconnect with people displaced by the damage.

“Doing this work ahead of an event, before it’s needed, establishing these spaces so people know about it, is something we’re working on and thinking about,” Houston said during his presentation. “How can we have more connective, hopeful, resilient online spaces?”

A tweet or Facebook post can alert others about safety precautions to take before the disaster, updates on its progression and where to get help after the damage is done.

Mental health in the wake of disaster

An often overlooked part of the disaster recovery process is mental health care, said Joah Williams, a University of Missouri-Kansas City assistant professor of psychology.

“Like other kinds of traumatic loss, disasters often involve an element of suddenness and unexpectedness that can often create some intense complications for survivors who are grieving the death of a loved one,” Williams said during his presentation.

The effects of trauma are often compounded during natural disasters, he said, because of other ongoing stressors. Property damage, financial losses and health risks from cleanup can take attention and time from mental health care.

Williams said that survivors of serious losses tend to seek mental health care in the first eight weeks after the trauma. However, much of this care comes from paraprofessional providers like chaplains, nurses or social workers rather than mental health professionals.

At the summit, Williams emphasized the importance of trained mental health professionals.

He also explained the Skills for Psychological Recovery protocol, one of his research focuses.

Developed by the National Center for PTSD and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, this method involves counseling sessions with a mental health provider.

The sessions are designed to help mitigate risk factors for long-term mental health effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder.

The program begins with a needs assessment and then provides skills such as information gathering and rebuilding healthy social connections, that help patients regain resilience and normalcy in their lives.

“With a model like this, the important thing is that we meet people where they are,” Williams said after the event. “If they’re not using terms like ‘trauma,’ they don’t recognize this as a traumatic event. That’s okay. We don’t use that word. We meet you where you are.”

Research collaboration efforts

Research development professionals from each of the four schools compiled a 19-page document of federal and state research funding opportunities for Wednesday’s attendees.

McIntosh hopes this will encourage collaboration among the schools and disciplines represented at the summit.

“What we’re trying to do with these things is create collisions between faculty who have similar interests,” McIntosh said. “Maybe in Missouri, among these four universities, we can put together a group of people who can study this better than anybody else can do.”

Supervising editor is Olivia Garrett.

  • Spring 2019 public life reporter. I am a junior studying news writing and sociology. Reach me at, or 573-340-5591.

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