A looming deadline for a geography class project lured Madeline Miles back to campus that fateful March night three years ago.
“I know it was spring break,” said the 23-year-old student from Newnan, Ga., “but I had homework.”
An undergraduate majoring in emergency management and minoring in homeland security and geography, Miles left her room in Sparkman Hall that evening to create a map for her Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Science class. The project required specific computer software that could only be accessed at Martin Hall.
After finishing her homework and making a quick grocery store run, she returned to Sparkman right as the weather started taking an ominous turn.
“The sky looked really bad,” she said. “I took a few pictures and decided that I’d better get inside.”
It was March 19, 2018.
Not long after she returned to her residence, an EF-3 tornado tore through campus and the surrounding community, causing millions of dollars in damages, ripping trees up by their roots and peeling roofs off buildings. At first, Miles was in her room when the storm hit.
“You’d think, as an emergency management student, I’d have taken it more seriously, been more prepared, but I really wasn’t,” she said with a quiet laugh. “I was taking pictures of the lightning, and didn’t realize just how intense it was until later. At first, I just thought it was a really bad thunderstorm with a lot of lightning and strong winds.”
“The sky looked really bad. I took a few pictures and decided that I’d better get inside.”
Miles remembers the sound of heavy doors opening and slamming shut, before being ripped off their hinges. “It was all very loud,” she said.
Residence hall staff moved students to the basement for shelter, where Miles took along a ham radio. “We couldn’t hear each other,” she said. “It was very chaotic. Definitely scary.”
When she and her dormmates emerged from the basement of Sparkman Hall, the dark night air was heavy with a strong earthy smell and the ground was littered with broken tree branches. The group made its way first to Mason Hall, then to the university police offices, and finally to the public safety complex behind Wal-Mart, where Miles tried to sleep.
The next morning, the university’s public relations director, Buffy Lockette, happened upon Miles at the community storm shelter while assisting with a joint city/university press conference. She offered her and another student a ride back to campus and informed them that Meehan Hall had been set up as a temporary residence for all students in need of shelter.
“Madeline was the first JSU student I saw the morning after the tornado,” Lockette said. “She was so pitiful in her rain jacket and galoshes. It was relieving to be able to help someone, even in a small way, as we all felt so helpless in those early hours as our community dug itself out of the rubble.”
For Miles, the natural disaster would greatly inform her academic pursuits and career trajectory. “I used the things that I learned in class to map out the tornado, from a geography perspective,” she said.
She partnered with graduate student James King to gather satellite images from before and after the storm to map the course of the tornado. By using the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a graphical indicator that quantifies vegetation by measuring the difference between near-infrared light (which vegetation strongly reflects) and red light (which vegetation absorbs) they were able to map out the storm’s path based on living and dead trees and other vegetation. Their paper, “The Jacksonville Tornado: A Scientific Retrospective,” won the Best Undergraduate Award for the School of Science at the 2019 JSU Student Symposium.
After graduating summa cum laude in Summer 2020, Miles returned to JSU just three weeks later to pursue the university’s new Master of Science program in GIS and Technology.
Still in her rain galoshes and wrapped in a blanket, Madeline Miles is interviewed on the morning after the tornado.
Along with her fellow students, Miles was welcomed back to class only two weeks after the tornado.
“When it gets windy on campus, I start getting nervous. But really, the tornado had a positive effect on me because I have been able to learn so much from it.”
She serves as president of JSU’s Geography Club and as founding president of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Society. She is also a graduate teaching assistant in chemistry and geosciences.
Miles comes from a long line of geography buffs, including her grandfather, mother, uncle and brother. “We just love our maps, our globes and our charts,” she said. “I love making maps, and that’s what GIS is all about – showing people the world.”
She has combined her passions for emergency management and GIS into a specialty – using remote sensing technology to map natural disasters and crises. In 2019, she studied the Australian wildfires. This past summer, she interned for the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency, using drones to help manage the flow of COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites. Currently, she is looking at environmental changes in areas sprayed with herbicide on undesirable plant species versus non-herbicide sprayed desirable plant species.
Looking back on the tornado that solidified her career path, Miles said she feels fortunate because she “didn’t lose anything but time.”
“When it gets windy on campus, I start getting nervous,” she said. “But really, the tornado had a positive effect on me because I have been able to learn so much from it.”
As for the homework assignment that brought her back to campus that historic night?
“I finished it in time,” she said, “but they gave me an extension anyway.”
Learn More About Madeline's Story
Miles makes her presentation on the storm's track through campus.
ABC 33/40 Meteorologist James Spann (center) came to campus to commemorate the anniversary of the tornado.
Miles and her peers at graduation in Summer '20.