I’m a visual communications designer caring for communities through conscientious research, meaningful interactions, and well-made things.    

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      I’m a visual communications designer caring for communities through conscientious research, meaningful interactions, and well-made things.

Post-Disaster Communication in East Palestine, Ohio

Team: Emily Moran, Audrey Reiley, & Lizzie Sokolich

design research, strategy


On February 3, 2023, a train derailed near East Palestine at the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The train, operated by Norfolk Southern, was carrying vinyl chloride, among other toxic and combustible materials. Chemicals were released via vent and burn to mitigate the risk of an explosion. Residents within about a one-mile radius of the site were evacuated from their homes. 

East Palestine is roughly 50 miles from Pittsburgh. Our group decided to tackle this problem space to see if we could provide any support to affected residents and begin to untangle the complexities of post-disaster communication.


To gain a deeper understanding of the problem space and test our initial assumptions, we developed a research plan consisting of onsite research, observational research, secondary analysis, and expert interviews.


Through our research, we discovered the core paradox central to the issue of the residents’ distrust of the information holders: there is an inherent distrust and skepticism of the provided data because the information presented by institutional information holders is inconsistent with the residents' experience.

Residents believed the lack of transparency from government agencies was intentional. We wanted to align with the residents of East Palestine as our central stakeholders. Government agencies followed protocol, remaining within the bounds of what they can say and provide, which may not be enough on its own to aid people through a disaster. We looked into how transparency could be improved.

Through observational research and social media, we believe an environment of mistrust develops in part due to lack of acknowledgment of personal experience. Residents saw the test results as a message that their lived experience is being denied.


While we initially believed this was a problem of information transparency, through conversations with residents and experts, we came to the conclusion that this was best framed as a problem of information accessibility.’ As a result of our research and reframing, our team mocked up “In a Nutshell”– an open source, printable document publicly available for all impacted parties to use to help share and digest complex information. It offers space for users to share information in both Q&A and build how-to diagrams.

The document is publicly available on Dropbox, editable via PDF and formatted to be easily reproduced on any copy machine.


© Sam Colavecchio 2024

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