National Drought Mitigation Center

Who We Are

Dr. Kelly Helm Smith

Communications Coordinator & Assistant Director

About Kelly

Kelly was one of the original employees of the National Drought Mitigation Center when it was established in 1995. She started her working life as a newspaper reporter, and then worked in corporate public relations for several years. The newly forming drought center needed a communications person, so she joined in that capacity. Working at the drought center, which focuses on planning, as well as her longstanding interest in mediation and conflict resolution, led to a master’s degree in Community & Regional Planning. That led to a six-year hiatus from the drought center, during which time Kelly worked with Lincoln’s African refugee and immigrant populations on behalf of various faith-based and non-profit organizations. She had the good fortune to be able to return to the drought center in 2006, and soon thereafter began focusing on drought impacts. After several years of being challenged by physical scientists to get past “anecdotal” narrative accounts of drought impacts, Kelly did a Ph.D. focused on quantitative methods to detect drought signals, separately examining West Nile Virus cases in Nebraska counties, tweets, and crowdsourced drought observations.

Now her research centers on drought impacts and the diverse ways in which people in different sectors experience, describe and quantify the effects of drought. She is responsible for the Drought Impacts Toolkit (, including developing new, continuously updated datasets from news stories, Twitter, and crowdsourcing, and providing them as maps. These maps contribute to interpretation of climate data for the U.S. Drought Monitor. She leads a nation-wide effort to crowdsource photos and observations related to drought, working with state and regional partners to balance the need for central coordination with individual states’ different needs and resources ( Kelly frequently wonders what would happen if we harnessed the power of social media and its algorithms to promote human and planetary well-being.

As communications coordinator for the National Drought Mitigation Center, Kelly supervises a staff of three, working with others throughout the center to convey information on drought monitoring, impacts and solutions. NDMC communications contributes significantly to the national discourse around drought, providing a consistent weekly interpretation of the U.S. Drought Monitor, with Twitter followers now over 9,000. As assistant director, she works closely with the director to implement communication initiatives and special projects, to represent the center in an official capacity when the director needs backup, and to handle an array of miscellaneous duties.

Note on having three names: It’s three names, no hyphen. Helm counts as a middle name, so alphabetize by Smith. The “Helm” is generally silent in spoken speech, but useful in publishing to be distinguishable from all the other Smiths out there.


  • Ph.D. in 2019 in Natural Resource Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • M.C.R.P. in 2005 in community and regional planning from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • M.S.J. in 1985 from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University
  • B.A. in 1984 in history, minor in French, from Bryn Mawr College