Student researches Joplin tornado after volunteering with disaster response

Jesse Westbrook
February 04, 2016

Matthew Dross recognizes the impact of volunteering after a natural disaster.

He also understands how he can make an impact as a Penn State student.

Dross volunteered with a relief effort following a tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri, in 2011 – resulting in 158 fatalities and more than $2 billion in damage in less than an hour, according to the National Weather Service.

“After watching coverage of the tornado on television, I wanted to do more than just donate to the relief effort,” said Dross, a senior majoring in meteorology.

In both August 2013 and August 2014, Dross drove more than 1,000 miles to Joplin, where he teamed up for a week with an organization known as Rebuild Joplin. Their primary goal was to rebuild homes and businesses in place of others that had been destroyed by the tornado.

Dross volunteered approximately 60 hours during the two weeks and helped repair several buildings.

“We worked with families on their homes that had been damaged or destroyed, and they were very kind and inspiring to the volunteers,” he said.

Continuing his involvement through a National Weather Service internship

In the spring 2015 semester, Dross began an internship with the National Weather Service at its State College office. The National Weather Service (NWS) operates more than 100 forecasting offices across the U.S., each of which provides forecasts and emergency services for their particular region. The State College office serves 33 counties in central Pennsylvania.

Dross shadowed professional forecasters and later helped with the NWS’s public service initiatives, such as sending out regional weather summaries.

As a student intern, Dross had the opportunity to complete a case study, and he chose to research the Joplin tornado. He says that the event stayed in the back of his mind until he had the opportunity to investigate it further.

“I wanted to focus on what went wrong in Joplin and why there were so many fatalities. I also took a closer look at their disaster plan and whether or not people heeded the warnings,” Dross said.

Dross wanted to see what lessons could be learned from the Joplin tornado aftermath, and the NWS provided resources to help with his goal.

“The NWS helped me access radar data from their Springfield, Missouri, office, which included the storm that hit Joplin, and I also had the chance to analyze findings from other case studies on the Joplin tornado,” he said.

Through his research, Dross discovered that Joplin’s original hospital was not built with the necessary storm-resistant features that would have allowed it to withstand the tornado and remain operable for the hundreds of patients following the tragic weather. He also learned that many of Joplin’s residents lacked adequate shelter from the storm. During the rebuilding, the city plans to construct accessible shelters for future severe weather in places like local schools.

After completing his study, Dross presented his findings at the National Weather Association’s annual conference in Oklahoma City in October 2015.

“It was really cool to see other students’ projects at the conference, and talk with professionals about my research, including my internship supervisor,” Dross said.

The NWS experience had other benefits for Dross, too.

“The experience allowed me to advance my knowledge of weather models and improve public communication skills. It was great to be involved and feel like I was an important part of their team,” he said.

  • student presents poster at conference

    Matthew Dross stands in front of his research poster, which he presented at the 2015 National Weather Association (NWA) conference in Oklahoma City, OK. Dross researched how the 2011 Joplin tornado response can be a model for other tornado-prone communities.

    IMAGE: Matthew Dross

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Last Updated February 11, 2016