Voices of Joplin

After the Good Friday Tornado hit the northern neighborhoods of St. Louis on 22 April, Sun 6 (my AmeriCorps NCCC team) and EArth 2 responded alongside the St. Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) and the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC).  A month later, to the day and almost to the hour, an EF-5 tornado slammed into the city of Joplin, MO. 

It is being called on of the worst tornado in history, whipping out almost 30% of the town, ripping it apart and throwing it miles away.  The double vortex cut a path a mile wide and over six miles long, right through the heart of the town, flattening homes, destroying businesses, tossing cars and scattering the debris and lives of the residents as far as the eye can see. 

That night, the AmeriCorps St. Louis ERT responded, arriving in Joplin a few hours later, followed closely by the members of the WCC.  The next morning, Sun 6 and Earth 2 received the call to respond.  After a frantic scramble of packing, logistics with the St. Louis HQ and organizing the caravan of four vans (3 NCCC vans, 1 van with the ERT) and two ERT trucks (‘Pickles’ and ‘Buck Hunter’), all of us arrived, less than 24 hours after the tornado had left the city in ruins. 

In the first hours of our arrival, we learned of the massive damage, the initial response and the chaos that follows a disaster.  As we worked into the night and through the early hours of the morning, we were placed in charge of different functions of the Volunteer Resource Center (VRC) and became vital links in the organization of the relief effort.  While many of us were put out into the field, leading groups of volunteers in the initial clean-up and clearing of the roads, some of us found ourselves behind the scenes, working the call centers and the databases. 

As the thousands of volunteers and support poured into Joplin, so did the 130+ AmeriCorps members from around the country and from many different programs.  From the NCCC out of Denver to the St. Louis ERT, the Environmental Corps out of Texas tot eh Iowa and Minnesota Conservation Corps, and the hundreds of smaller programs that came as well, we all became a force, a family, a team that began the healing process of this community. 

And as their healing process began, stories of survivors and heroes emerged from the rubble and debris of this community.  Unspoken, everyday heroes that are just like you and me, that chose to follow their hearts and ignore their fears for the split seconds that their thoughts went silent.  It is in these stories that we find out who they have come to be. 

It would have been very easy to allow the stories of survivors and first responders to slip away into the words and emotions of those first hours, but each one dug into my heart, embedding like a thorn that could not be plucked out, that tore at me until I could no longer ignore the untold stories. 

The night after the tornado, I arrived in Joplin and was put to work running the Volunteer Data Intake Center.  We worked throughout the night, entering names, skills and emergency contacts into the database into the early hours of the morning.  Many of the volunteers that worked with me were victims of the storm, looking to do something to keep their minds off of what they had seen and experienced. 

One young man, there with several of his friends, spoke of how he had dived into his bathroom and ducked into the tub as the tornado hit his house.  He spoke of the screaming wind that ripped though the walls and tore the door off its hinges.  As he emerged several minutes later, he entered a whole new world.  The only parts of his house still standing were the four walls of the bathroom and the ceiling over his head. 

Another volunteer was biking from the east to the west coast before starting his new job in San Francisco.  His journey brought him right through Joplin, less than an hour after the tornado ripped through the town.  He joined the initial search and rescue effort, in biking shorts and tennis shoes, because he felt that it would be criminal if he kept going after all the help he received from complete strangers in his journey.   

Even more stories emerged from the chaos in the following days.  Stories of how communities came together in their darkest hours, of groups of neighbors searching for one another in the wreckage and of everyday individuals becoming heroes. 

One such individual was one of our returning volunteers that worked in the Volunteer Data Intake Center, day after day, Randy Jo.  He was up on the fifth floor of St. John’s Hospital when it received a direct hit from the tornado.  Thrown off his feet, he was slammed against the wall.  As the storm passed, he led the 15 patients and 7 nurses down the flooded stairs and out a hole in the wall of the Emergency Room.  He then turned and entered the damaged building time and time again, rescuing another 18 people from the rubble. 

He told me how in those first two hours of searching, he stepped over broken glass, rusted nails and bodies that littered the ground.  Doctors and nurses yelled for him not to enter, but the screams of the injured and the cries of the dying drove him forward with clarity, despite the ruptured natural gas line, the falling debris and the blood soaked tiles.  He knew in that moment that if he died, he would be fine because, for the first time in his life, he knew he was doing the right thing. 

We heard stories of groups rising from the debris, moving from house to house searching for loved ones, neighbors and the cries of complete strangers.  People who were more concerned with the lives of others than the safety of their own, their belongings now scattered across the city.  These are the heroes of Joplin, whose voices have reached the hearts of many. 

I heard these stories with nothing to connect to.  I hadn’t seen the damage path, the flags that marked where the lost had been found, the spray painted Xs that marked the progress of the Search and Rescue teams.  It wasn’t till after I stood in the parking lot of Joplin High School, where the staging  ground for the Search and Rescue operations were underway, till after i stood in the parking lot overlooking the building that was once St. John’s Hospital, till after my first day in the field where I tagged along with one of the Search and Rescue crews as they completed one of the last sweeps of the city. 

Suddenly the words and the images began to match up and the emotions of the stories finally came together.  I finally was able to understand the extent of the stories, the experiences of that night.  I wandered through the wreckage and debris, through the scattered lives of those that once lived there, wondering about the lives that used to be.   

My second day out in the field, I plugged into a search and rescue team, made up of several AmeriCorps members and the members of a fire department, in the attempt to document the response to the devastation.  As I moved between the ruins of building, searching not with eyes but with the sense of smell, my heart was pounding.  I shared the same hope that became the double edge sword of the search and rescue teams. 

While part of me, as well as part of everyone there, hoped not to come across the remains of the lost, another part hoped to provide answers to the living, the survivors.  Our senses were assaulted by the sight of broken buildings and the remains of people’s lives, rotting meat that oozed out of freezers and open fridges, the stench of garbage strewn across neighborhoods and spilling out of overloaded dumpsters.  We wandered between what once was and is now lost. 

Even in those moments, my spirits were lifted as I saw others coming to terms with the destruction.  Amid the spray painted Xs that revealed the initial search and rescue, signs of hope and the graffiti messages of gratitude marked each street.  Messages that read “All safe” and “God bless Joplin” to “For sale, 1/2 off” and “Basement for sale.”

I became fascinated with the words and their meanings.  How on the same house that several peopled never walked out of, there were words of hope, of a future.  How the faith of the community was something that the tornado could not take and throw across the town, but in the rubble, you could see the foundations of these people’s lives. 

As we returned to the VRC that night, I knew that none of us would ever be the same.  The experiences of wandering through the ruins of Joplin, hearing the stories of the survivors, serving in the midst of tragedy has allowed each of us to grow and learn a little more about ourselves.  The visions will eventually fade and we will eventually process everything that we had seen, felt and experienced, but we will be forever changed by the things that we have done. 

I know in my heart that the person I was is only a shadow of who I have become. 

God Bless and PEACE

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