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The Difference Between Life and Death

“Get in the car,” his father yelled. “We’re leaving now.” May 3, 1999 is a day Kevin Ash can’t forget. Considered by many plains-state residents as the worst weather outbreak in generations, the 70-plus tornadoes that hit parts of Kansas as well as the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles killed 36 people, destroyed more than 1500 homes and businesses and caused $1.2 billion in damage.

Kevin’s family came through the storms better than most, seeking refuge with nearby relatives and returning to a home that sustained only minor damage. But others weren’t so lucky. “Houses just a few hundred yards away from ours got the full force of the storm,” he recalls. “Those people were completely wiped out.”

How members of his family and neighbors reacted to the storm warnings that day is a key reason Kevin is at the University of South Carolina today. Nearly 15 years after that devastating day, he’s pursuing a doctorate in geography and conducting research at USC’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. “That storm got me interested in how people perceive weather warnings. It made me want to go back to school and find some way to look at those behaviors,” he says. “Some people—like my family—responded by leaving the area. Others didn’t and had to search for safety at the last minute.”

At the institute, scientists investigate natural disasters, such as tornadoes, and hurricanes as well as man-made risks, like chemical spills and terrorist threats. The institute is noted for basic research on hazard vulnerability and resilience, training of the next generation of hazard scientists and practitioners and for helping to improve emergency preparedness, planning, response and recovery at local, state, national and international levels.

Specifically, Kevin focuses on how people living in mobile homes perceive, plan and respond to severe weather warnings and events. “There hasn’t been a lot research in this area,” he explains. “I want to learn the strategies mobile residents use, if any. I want to determine where and how they get weather information, how they respond to that information and what additional information they need to be better prepared.”

Because South Carolina’s high population of mobile home residents, Kevin’s research is particularly important. “In the six counties that are the focus of my study—Richland, Lexington, Orangeburg, Sumter, Calhoun and Clarendon—it’s estimated that there are about 50,000 to 55,000 occupied mobile homes.”

Kevin’s memories of May 3, 1999 are deep. They keep him searching for answers. His research could mean the difference between life and death for many South Carolinians.

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