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Local History

Coping With Disaster: Journalists, Behavioral Expert Examine Joplin Tornado

Carol Stark (Middle) addresses the crowd Thursday inside Drury's Clara Thompson Hall. Co-directors Beth Pike (Left) and Steve

For Carol Stark, the images of the May 22, 2011 tornado that devastated Joplin are still fresh. As editor of The Joplin Globe, she and her team worked tirelessly to inform the public in the days, weeks, and months after the event, despite nearly a third of the paper’s employee’s homes destroyed by the storm. As KSMU’s Scott Harvey reports, the documentary highlighting the Globe’s efforts to put out a paper amidst the destruction still serves as an emotional rollercoaster for Stark and her staff.

http://ozarkspub.vo.llnwd.net/o37/KSMU/audio/mp3/coping-disaster-journalists-behavioral-expert-examine-joplin-tornado_57683.mp3

The impact of the Joplin tornado was massive. 161 people were killed, at least 1,000 injured, and nearly $3 billion in damages. The paper employed 117 people at the time, 33 of whom lost their homes to the storm. And among those killed in the tornado was Bruce Baillie, a page designed for the Globe.

“Deadline in Disaster,” the title of the documentary produced by Beth Pike and Steve Hudnell, captures the raw emotion of the tornado’s victims and the struggles the paper’s reporters faced in telling their stories. The film was shown before a crowd Thursday morning at Drury University in Springfield, part of the university’s Theme Year series, Voices Unbound: New Media and the Future of Democracy.

It was the fifth time Stark had seen the film, which runs about an hour and a half. She says reliving the tragedy gets more emotional every time, and that some reporters are still undergoing counseling, taking medications, and even feel guilty that they lived, while others died.

“This thing will never ever go away for us. But, as a journalist, we also count it as probably the most exciting two years of our lives,” Stark said.

The moments immediately following the storm were ones of mixed thoughts, says Stark. There was concern for the employees she knew lived in the path of tornado, but also for the responsibility to inform the community of what had happened.

“I remember from that moment standing in the middle of the newsroom just thinking ‘what do I do next?’ And I don’t know if any of you are journalists or journalism students, that you’ll understand that whole thing comes over me, and all of a sudden you’re really not yourself. You’re just working off of that instinct of, ‘OK Carol, this is what we’ve worked… you’ve prepared for this moment your entire life.’”

Stark adds that the Joplin Globe wasn’t out to sensationalize the stories they told, but they were out to own the coverage of the storm’s aftermath.

“Nobody would have blamed us; by the way, nobody would have blamed us if we would have set back and taken care of our own. In fact, a lot of people probably would have assumed that was what we were going to do. And I made a lot of people nuts in that first week, cuz we worked, like 48… we worked so hard because I was not gonna to let somebody else tell that story.”

The film’s co-producer, Beth Pike, was on site the morning after the EF-5 tornado hit, with the thought that this film will help young journalists with covering future breaking news stories.  Steve Hudnell, who works with Pike at Orr Street Productions in Columbia, Missouri, would arrive a few days later.

“You know obviously the trauma they had been through, you know, I kinda put mine in perspective as far as my emotions. It was nothing like what they’d endured. Once you got to know the people and their stories, the effects on them psychologically, began to have an effect on me,” Hudnell said.

There was the story of reporter Emily Younker, who was tasked with compiling the “death list” Stark had assigned to be published once all of those who perished were identified. Josh Letner’s first day on the job at the Globe was the day after the tornado hit. Reporter Jeff Lehr was one of several to offer a first-hand account of how the tornado destroyed his home, while photojournalist Bill Shepherd pledged to give back every powerful and moving photo he captured if they could have avoided the tornado.

The film examined the hardship of identifying as a reporter and as a citizen. For journalists, sometimes while in the moment we’re shielded by the devastation of a story. That was the case for producer Beth Pike, who was so busy reporting on the story the first two weeks she was in Joplin that she had little time to process her emotions.

“I left Joplin and I got to Springfield, and it was starting to sink in. And I called my husband to tell him I was on my way. And all of a sudden, I was on I-44, and a burst of tears just came out flooded. I had to pull over because I couldn’t even see. It was the first time it had hit me,” Pike said.

View the "Deadline in Disaster" trailer

As we approach the second anniversary of the storm, the stories about Joplin and the recovery process continue, as does months of research composed by Dr. Jennifer Silva Brown and her team, who are identifying the coping ability of those impacted by the tornado.

Brown, an assistant professor of behavioral science at Drury University, offered her analysis of the Joplin Impact Project Thursday afternoon, in conjunction with the Voices Unbound series. She says victims of natural disasters have a tendency to cope pretty well in the days immediately following the event, because of the abundance of help from counselors and other mental health professionals. But her goal was to examine how individuals are doing as the months go by. That includes a questionnaire of how they’re functioning, their ability to carry out daily activities, and a mental health analysis including questions of if they’re experiencing depression or nightmares. 

“We ask them about resilience. Are they able to see the positive in light of what has happened? Are they attempting to see the good in any way, are they starting to rebuild their lives, are they making steps to rebuild their lives,” Brown asks.

Brown says that information is then coded, and the behaviors of those who are coping well are further examined to see if those behaviors can assist storm victims who are struggling to recover.

Nearly 90 people were chosen for the study and interviewed twice, the first one early on and the second time months later. They were mostly low-income individuals, and ranged in age from 18-86 years old.

A victim’s coping style can vary drastically depending on a number of scenarios, says Brown, and one element her team is looking into is the precise impact of the tornado.

“We’re in the process of tracing the path of the storm in relationship to where their residence was, to see if there’s a difference in coping style dependent on proximity to the tornado.”

These coping strategies can fall into a number of categories, she says, including problem focused, active emotional, and avoidant emotional strategies.”

Brown says the goal of the Joplin Impact Project is to publish their findings, intended to promote the recovery of a community following things like natural disasters. In the meantime, they’ll continue to present their research at various conferences across the country to spread the word. Brown will be speaking next at the American Psychological Association this summer.

“And then through these publications we hope that health professionals and that also organizations like FEMA, or just even local counseling or therapy resources that go in after a disaster will read these papers and then they’ll say, ‘OK this is what we need to help, this is what we need to foster in people that are struggling,” Brown says.