In training the next generation of scholars and practitioners, START offers its students a chance to publish their work on this blog.

How a disaster led me to START


Grant Whittington

It was May 28, 2008, and the weather was calm. I had just finished playing a baseball game at a park about 45 minutes from my house and my family decided to celebrate the victory with a trip to Damon’s Grill & Sports Bar. Following lunch, my mom opted to make the solo trek home while my brothers and I continued our day with a quick trip to the mall. The sky opened up and rain started falling but it felt like nothing out of the ordinary.

We were leaving Macy’s, my brothers with bags weighing their arms down, when my mom called. She explained calmly and matter-of-factly that a tree had fallen through our house. She said it fell through the entire house and we would likely be displaced for quite some time. My mom typically isn’t dramatic, but it was impossible for my brothers and me to understand the scope of the situation until we saw the damage for ourselves. There, we saw the house that raised us, the very foundation upon which I took my first steps, mumbled my first word and spent endless hours getting pummeled by my older brothers, devastated by a 60-foot tall tree. My mom hadn’t exaggerated at all, if anything she undersold the magnitude.

By her account, she was sitting on a couch in our living room when wailing winds howled against our house. She called my dad, scared, and he advised her to rush downstairs to a safe space and wait for the storm to brush over. While on the phone with my dad, and just minutes after relocating downstairs for shelter, she heard a thundering BOOM. She ran upstairs to see a massive tree spreading its roots exactly where she had been sitting.

While this was my first exposure to natural disasters, it would not be my last. My internship with the Risk Communication and Resilience team at START opened the door for me to research natural disasters and how they impact family resilience. It was fascinating researching a topic that I had directly experienced when my family was forced to respond to the microburst that pushed a tree onto my house eight years prior.

Contributing to a grant proposal to provide funding for a full-scale research project involving family resilience in natural disasters, my colleague Melissa and I developed justifications for where the studies should take place. Our research led us to Pennington County, South Dakota and Robeson County, North Carolina, where we could focus on low-income families representing diverse populations.

The research team headed by esteemed scholars including Risk Communication and Resilience Director Brooke Liu, used some of our research in the final proposal and it was great to see our contributions were meaningful.

Working with START gave me a great opportunity to further my career by developing independent research skills while also receiving great supervision and guidance. I always knew what was expected of me and felt that my projects were substantive and worthwhile.

I would have never imagined an uprooted tree would have led me to START, but I’m sure glad it did.