Jefferson City Tornado Cleanup Gets Assistance from A&S Students

Disaster Class Gets a Taste of the Real Thing
Prof. Frank's natural disaster class

Students in Professor Jerry Frank's "Acts of God: An Environmental History of Natural Disasters" class volunteered to assist in the cleanup following the May 22 tornado in Jefferson City. The group includes Saige Bexten, Alexandra Cappetta, Noah Carroll, Marigrace Heinze, Skylar Irwin, Peter Leipold, Tianyu Liu, Olivia McKee, and Erin O'Connor and Prof. Frank.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

As they approached Jefferson City to assist in the cleanup from the May 22 tornado, a group of MU students say they were shocked to see houses submerged in what looked like a lake surrounding Highway 63.

“There was this striking image of these kids kicking a ball back and forth in front of a house that was destroyed,” says Noah Carroll, a Chicago native who graduated in May with a degree in philosophy and a minor in English. “Those kids acted like there was nothing wrong—just a normal, sunny day.”

For the past four years, Associate Professor of History Jerry Frank has taught a “Maymester” course on natural disasters. The two-week history course is called Acts of God: An Environmental History of Natural Disasters. The course is divided into equal parts theory and history of natural disasters, followed by visits to various hazard and disaster sites across Missouri.

Real World Lessons

Last year students in Professor Frank’s class toured the Columbia Wastewater Treatment facility, the MU power plant, the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant, and the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) in Jefferson City. This year the class was scheduled to visit SEMA on May 23, but just before midnight on May 22, a devastating tornado cut a swath of destruction through the capital city.

“I reached out to the leadership at SEMA and asked if there was a way we could help,” Frank says.
Bobbie Herman by Sally Ince, Jefferson City News Tribune

Frank says he was connected with Red Cross officials about volunteer opportunities. He and his class of nine students reported to a Capital Mall staging area with AmeriCorps, the agency coordinating volunteers. The group was taken to the home of Bob and Bobbie Herman, who have lived in Jefferson City for about 50 years. Frank says he had an opportunity to talk to Bobbie Herman during the cleanup.

“The property was savaged—it was a huge mess, but that wasn’t what got to them,” Frank says. “It was all of the people that had come to help. That was the part that really touched them, and she kept saying, ‘I don’t know any of these people and they’re coming from all over the place.’”

Frank says the work was physical, hot, heavy, and on a large, steep hill. But through it all, he says his students worked very hard and stayed positive.

“I used to build houses for a living, and I’ve worked in gold mines, so I know what real work is and this was real work,” he says. “We were hauling brush and wood up and down the big hill and the students worked their butts off, but they had great attitudes.”

Noah Carroll

Carroll says he had never done volunteer work before so he didn’t know what to expect. But he says everyone at the site was friendly and upbeat and willing to work.

“We worked all day but we didn’t make a dent,” he says. “We might have cleared half of the site we were assigned to, but there are more than 400 sites. Still, it was a really positive experience.”

Learning through Experience

Frank says his Acts of God course is based on an experiential learning model, the process of learning through experience, and offers a travel abroad at home model. But this trip was more of a service-learning model.

“It was a chance to crystallize everything I’m trying to teach in the class about disasters, about vulnerability, about hazards, about response. And it was all right there in front of us, so it was really powerful,” he says. “I’ve coordinated dozens of service-learning classes and never have I seen students do a better job. It was a great day to be a Missouri Tiger.”

The students are wrapping up the course this week with visits to Pilot Knob, Missouri to talk to a U.S. Forest Service fire manager about forest fires and forest management at the Mark Twain National Forest, and another trip to Alton, Illinois to visit the Great Rivers Museum and the locks and dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

MU students at the Herman site

Carroll, who took Prof. Frank’s course to earn a few extra credits toward graduation, says he would definitely take the course again.

“I didn’t know much about natural disasters or the science behind those events,” he says. “Dr. Frank is incredibly passionate about this. He really brings this class to life.”

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