UD’s Disaster Research Center interviewing community to improve future response

The University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center wants to interview as many people in and around Delaware as possible about the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on their lives.

“What Delawareans are experiencing right now is important to contributing to a better response in future disasters,” said Tricia Wachtendorf, director of the Disaster Research Center. “Our focus is both on the University of Delaware community, but also very much on those residents, organizations, businesses and groups in and around Delaware who have been impacted.”

In addition to faculty and staff, more than 20 master’s and doctoral students affiliated with the Disaster Research Center are conducting the interviews over Zoom, which participants can connect to via their computers or by calling in from a phone. Interviews will last between 20 minutes and two hours long, depending on how long the person wants to speak.

Participants have the option of either having their interview become part of a public oral history, or having their interview be limited to research where their name would not be associated with their information in publications or presentations.

“We are interested in speaking to anyone who wants to share their experiences with us,”’ Wachtendorf said. “Rather than focus on a particular topic, we want to get as complete a picture as possible about broad community impacts and the ways people are adapting.”

Graduate students from UD’s interdisciplinary program in disaster science and management are involved in the study, as well as from sociology and criminal justice, epidemiology, civil and environmental engineering, and political science.

“Our students, in particular, have been directly impacted by this event — not only through their experiences at UD, but also the health threat and impact to them and their families,” Wachtendorf said.

“I know that my friends, family and I have all experienced the daily repercussions of this pandemic in very different ways, so I look forward to collecting even more perspectives through these interviews,” said Caroline Williams, from Newark, Delaware. She is a first-year doctoral student in the civil and environmental engineering program.

Virginia Berndt, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UD, interviews participants in the Disaster Research Center’s COVID-19 study from her home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Virginia Berndt, a doctoral candidate in sociology, is working on the project from her home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“Being involved in doing research now is valuable as COVID is impacting communities in different ways on a day-to-day basis, and these impacts often strike unequally across social contexts of socioeconomic status, race and neighborhood setting,” Berndt said. “Studying how COVID affects various communities in Delaware as it is happening can capture these impacts most adequately.”

Yajaira Ayala, a first-year doctoral student in the disaster science and management program, is working from her hometown of McAllen, Texas.  Her previous research experience includes studying health and social disparities in vulnerable populations of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Projects like this one at the Disaster Research Center allow us to capture key societal changes that can improve or negatively affect our social environment,” Ayala said. “An early recognition of these issues is imperative as we respond to this crisis.”

From his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Christopher Tharp, a doctoral candidate in political science and international relations at UD, wants to know how people are navigating a flood of information to make decisions during the pandemic.

Christopher Tharp, a doctoral candidate in political science and international relations from Wilmington, Delaware, wants to better understand how people are navigating the COVID-19 information flow.

“I am particularly interested in how people are sorting through all of the information concerning the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tharp said. “Where are people turning for guidance to make decisions?”

The oral history component of the study will complement other rapid response efforts taking place across the country, according to Valerie Marlowe, the center’s assistant director of archives and collections.

“These first-person accounts of disasters have long been a valuable source of information,” Marlowe said. “Oral histories, more than written records, bring the human experience to life, preserving the voices and experiences of people who have lived through historically significant events.”

As the oldest center in the world focused on the social and management aspects of disaster, the Disaster Research Center has undertaken quick-response field studies for decades — from the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska in 1964, to 9/11, the Tohoku Triple Disaster in Japan, Hurricane Harvey and many others.

Such studies yield results. The center’s work after 9/11 revealed the importance of improvisation and adaptation during a crisis. Fieldwork after Hurricane Sandy contributed to a method for measuring potential recovery trajectories in disaster-ravaged counties.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Disaster Research Center has been sharing information with response agencies and the public from its extensive E.L. Quarantelli Resource Collection via Twitter (@elq_resource) and other avenues.  The center’s alumni also are directly involved in local, county and state agencies, as well as private and non-profit organizations on the front lines.

Now, the center’s lens is focused on its own community.

“The experience of those in Delaware and surrounding communities is critical to understanding this event and doing a better job preparing, responding and supporting people should this happen again,” Wachtendorf said.

To sign up to be interviewed, visit this website, which is available in both English and Spanish. For more information, contact Wachtendorf at twachten@udel.edu.

Article by Tracey Bryant | Photos by iStock and courtesy of Virginia Berndt and Christopher Tharp | May 05, 2020