Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 8, 2013

Battling nature's fury

Middle school students develop projects to help during floods

By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Jerzie Eagle and Liesl Elkin pointed to their topography map that showed the 8 acres of flood-prone land around Carter and Murden streets in Kokomo.

This is where their arboretum will go once the city tears down the homes destroyed in the last flood, they told Don Cree, wastewater manager for the city of Kokomo.

They have it all planned out. There will be a disc-golf course, a playground with obstacle course and groves of trees of all types — sugar maples, pin oaks, sycamores and white walnuts, tulips and dogwoods and even a black willow.

“It’s very ambitious,” Cree told them. “It’s a cool area.”

The designers smiled.

One had long hair and a pink shirt with a “hug-o-meter” emblazoned on the front. The other wore her hair braided and donned a pink Purdue zip-up hoodie.

They’re students at Central Middle School.

Part of their robotics team project this year required them to come up with a plan to help protect against nature’s fury.

They could choose any natural disaster to combat. They chose floods.

“Flooding is closest to our hearts,” Liesl said. “It happens a lot here and sometimes to people we know.”

They wanted to come up with a practical use for an area of Kokomo that frequently floods.

The city is already buying up homes in the Carter and Murden Street area and tearing them down.

Liesl and Jerzie wanted to find a way to repurpose that land and protect it during heavy rain.

Their first idea was to install a flood wall.

“But flood walls would just mean the water goes to different places,” Jerzie said.

The water would then become someone else’s problem, she said. And that’s not the goal.

Cree told them he was impressed with their insight. Most people who put up flood walls don’t understand that they may be hurting their neighbors, he said.

The Central students thought their second idea was much more viable.

They wanted to start an orchard using the land.

But their robotics project requires them to consult with experts, and a local expert told them an orchard likely wouldn’t survive in a floodplain.

They spoke with a Purdue University extension educator.

“We learned that fruit-bearing trees don’t like to get their feet wet,” Liesl said.

Too much water will expose the trees to disease.

Their next idea was more practical. They decided to plan an arboretum — a place filled with trees, shrubs and plants that people can visit like a park. It would also be a resource for area science teachers.

They researched trees that thrive in wet areas. They even took field trips out to survey the land.

Cree taught the team about drainage and floodplains.

For a month, the girls have been planning this and learning all they can about the subject, including how the city responds during floods.

Cree said it’s a powerful lesson for them. These middle school students know more about floods and how they impact Kokomo than most adults do.

“It’s valuable,” he said. “I wish they taught this in high school.”

While Cree talked to Jerzie and Liesl, another group of students from Maple Crest Middle School worked on their own robotics project.

They chose a disaster that was a little more foreign to them.

The kids on the team considered hurricanes the most devastating of natural disasters. And their project aims to help one of society’s most vulnerable populations survive one. The program they created would help homebound elderly people and their pets evacuate during a hurricane.

It’s called Evac Buddy.

It’s a program that would pair volunteers with elderly, homebound people, especially ones with pets.

Seventh-grader Brayden Mickle said he found studies that said as many as 50 percent of elderly people with pets said they would stay in their home during a hurricane rather than leave their pet behind.

The problem is, most public evacuation centers don’t allow pets because some people are allergic to them or scared of them, he said.

With the students’ program, those elderly people would be paired with a volunteer. The two would come up with an evacuation plan ahead of time, one that accounts for any pets.

Then, in the event of a hurricane, the volunteer would make sure their elderly partner and their partner’s pets make it out safely.

The team’s adviser, Paula Hobbs, said her students are addressing a real need.

“Some people might ask, ‘Why don’t they just get in the car and leave?” Hobbs said.

This population might not have that option. Some of them might not drive anymore or might not even own a car, Hobbs said. And if they don’t have friends or family in the area, they may have no way out.

These students, too, have to do their research. They’ve already watched a movie about Hurricane Katrina and have learned the parts of a hurricane. Soon, they will be talking to an expert in South Florida who survived Hurricane Andrew.

This year’s project asks students to think on a larger scale.

Last year students had to create products to help senior citizens. This one tackles issues that affect larger populations.

That’s something Jerzie likes.

“I like this project a lot better,” Jerzie said. “We’re actually making a difference throughout the community.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com.