March 3, 2016  

Purdue research team investigates disaster recovery

Clawson map

A map illustrating the path of the March 2012 tornado and the survey respondents. (Photo provided by Arif Sadri)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Strong ties to the community and a bond between neighbors can help areas affected by natural disasters recover faster, according to a survey conducted by Purdue University students and faculty.

The Resilient Communities Research Team found that having a dense social network helps speed the recovery process, said Arif Sadri, graduate student in civil engineering. The team surveyed almost 400 people from the rural southern Indiana communities of Henryville, Marysville, New Pekin and Chelsea, all of which were in the path of deadly EF3 and EF4 tornadoes in March 2012. The survey was part of the project, "Resilient Communities: Strengthening Post-Disaster Recovery by Understanding Interdependent Social and Physical Networks." Sadri presented the research at the RES/CON Student Research Expo in New Orleans on March 1-3.

The brief survey asked residents to provide information on when, where and how they evacuated the area, and whether it was before, during or after the tornadoes hit on March 2-3, 2012. It also asked about each household's connection to the people around them and the extent to which those people came to their aid during the recovery process. Sadri said they found that those who were able to rely on their neighbors and community for help were able to bounce back from the disaster a bit faster than those who were not.

Satish Ukkusuri, professor of civil engineering, said that it is important to consider physical infrastructure – the power grid or roads – but it’s also important to understand people and encourage strong neighborhood and community ties that will be instrumental in helping people recover.

Seungyoon Lee, associate professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, said that there is much to learn about post-disaster recovery.

"Very little is understood about how people draw upon their social connections after a disaster and how we can encourage strong neighborhood and community ties that will be instrumental in helping people recover," she said. "We encourage community leaders and policymakers to consider the importance of social, neighborhood and community factors as they prepare for disasters." 

Engaging senior citizen and civic groups in disaster planning scenarios and encouraging neighborhood events that could build or strengthen social ties are a few ways the team suggests community leaders could better incorporate social factors into disaster preparedness, said team member Megan Sapp Nelson, associate professor of library science.

The research team included Sadri; Lee; Sapp Nelson; Rosalee A. Clawson, professor and head of the Department of Political Science; Abhijit Deshmukh, professor and James J. Solberg head of industrial engineering; Daniel Kelly, associate professor of philosophy; Justin Seipel, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Satish Ukkusuri, professor of civil engineering; and Daniel P. Aldrich, professor of political science at Northeastern University.

The team conducted its study as part of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant and the 21st Century Grand Challenges project, an initiative created by President Barack Obama in 2013 to harness science, technology and innovation to solve important national or global problems. The $538,000 grant was issued to Purdue in March 2014 for a project titled "Catalyzing the Involvement of Humanists and Social Scientists in Grand Challenge Initiatives." 

Writer: Megan Huckaby, 765-496-1325, 

Sources: Rosalee Clawson,, 765-494-4162

Arif Sadri,, 765-637-1882 

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