Posts Tagged ‘Joplin’

Snowflakes

During my first year of AmeriCorps, when I was serving with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), I was deployed in response to the Good Friday Tornadoes that swept across St Louis, MO. It was one of the first cities that was hit by tornadoes the Easter weekend of 2011, as a storm system rolled across the southern States, dropping over 300 tornadoes across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

A month later, we raced across the state of Missouri to respond alongside members of several other AmeriCorps programs to the devastation of Joplin, where an EF-5 tornado ripped a mile wide path through the heart of the city.

It was there, as I served in the Volunteer Reception Center, putting volunteer data and emergency contacts into a database, that I first heard the term “snowflakes” to describe certain members of my own team and other AmeriCorps teams. It was a term that was often used as a negative attribute by members of more “elite” AmeriCorps programs.

It wasn’t until two years later, when I joined the St Louis AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team that I fully understood what they were talking about.

The theory was explained to me like this: Every team (the person who shared this theory was speaking specifically abut NCCC and FEMA Corps teams, but also referenced our larger team of the Emergency Response Team) there are a handful of natural leaders who thrive in any situation they are in, about twice as many followers who have the potential to rise to be leaders in times of need, and then a couple of “snowflakes,” individuals who melt away when close to the fire.

The thought process was that natural leaders and followers with potential can be relied upon in times of need, but the “snowflakes” of the group or team need to be in non-stressful positions in times of crisis (say, for example, during a response to a EF-5 tornado ripping through a community or to a hurricane slamming into a major metropolitan community).

During my time in AmeriCorps, we spoke at length about this concept and idea.

I never liked the term. We threw it around like it was just another adjective. We used it liberally when we looked out and felt that other programs were beneath us.

I avoided it because it was had been used to describe my own teammates. I heard it used to describe the AmeriCorps program that built me into the leader. That allowed me to grow as an individual. That gave me strength to face and conquer my fears.

I’m hearing it again, all these years later, to describe, once again, my friends and teammates. It is being used to describe men and women who are willing to stand and fight for what they believe in. It is being used the same way we used it in AmeriCorps, to make people feel better than those who are different from them.

Let me tell you a story about one of my teammates that was once called a “snowflake.” This was a kid that joined AmeriCorps right out of High School. They were shy. Didn’t have the best social skills. They didn’t pour out confidence in the way they held themselves, but their work ethic was stronger than steel.

When we got deployed in response to the Good Friday tornadoes in St Louis, they held back because they were not comfortable being out front. They preferred a supporting role. After we arrived in Joplin, they froze. For just a second, they were overwhelmed. And because of this, members of more “elite” programs, AmeriCorps members that we all looked up to, considered them a “snowflake.”

I, too, froze. I think every single one of us were overwhelmed by the chaos and utter destruction that surrounded us. A “snowflake” is supposed to melt when faced with the trials of fire. Not a single one of us did.

Some of us led teams out in the field. Some of us answered phones. Some of us organized operations behind the scenes. Some of us were there to support survivors physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Some of us didn’t step out into the debris field until almost a week after the tornado ripped its way across the town. But nobody that responded, neither AmeriCorps members or volunteer, melted away.

In FEMA Corps, I had teammates who found their limits. Who discovered their breaking point. I had members of my team that left for various reasons. Fellow Team Leaders who walked away from the experience. But none of them ever melted.

The thing I learned while serving my final two years with AmeriCorps, while serving with one of those “elite” programs, was that everyone wants to make themselves feel better about their faults. We like to boost ourselves up, by looking down on others.

Whether it be on matters of experience or political opinion, we look down on those ‘beneath’ ourselves with disgust. We call them names and insult them because it makes us feel, in some sick way, superior to them. We think that makes us more powerful than them.

But my teammate that first year heard some of the members calling them a “snowflake.” And it made them fight harder. It made them harder than ice. It allowed them to take that flame that threatened to consume them and consume it. To let it be the fuel to prove to the world, but more importantly to their self, that whatever chains that were holding them back could be broken.

I see it happening again. People rising for what they believe in. A resistance to the flood of insults and acts that threaten to consume them.

Here’s the thing: One of those people who was called a “snowflake” in the days following Joplin was me. I was looked down upon because I made the decision to work in a support role in the Volunteer Reception Center, rather than lead a team out in the field. I never called out the person, though sometimes I wish I had, because I knew that I could help more from where I was at than be another set of boots in the debris field.

Ever see what a bunch of snowflakes can do? Just look at the snowstorms that have stopped communities and cities in their tracks.

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The Miracle of the Human Spirit

Five years ago, our lives changed. Five years ago, it was the worst night for the lives of hundreds, thousands of people after a line of storms ripped their way across south west Missouri. Five years ago, an EF-5 tornado left behind a wake of devastation a mile wide through the heart of Joplin.

Hundreds were missing. Thousands were left homeless. And something amazing happened.

In those first moments, before the volunteers poured in, even before members of AmeriCorps piled into trucks and started to drive across the state from St Louis in the dead of night, the miracle of the human spirit happened.

We always hear about the thousands of volunteers that poured in to assist. The hundreds of EMTs and Firefighters that flooded into the debris field to conduct Search and Rescue operations. But before all of them arrived, before people were even able to get up onto their feet, someone made the choice to help their neighbor.

Thousands of people, ordinary folk like you and me, made the choice to become part of that miracle. One by one, stories came flooding in of how on that fateful night, neighbors banded together to save one another. In the darkness, they became the light for one another.

If there were any heroes that night, they went unnoticed because they were part of the community.

There is a saying in the world of disaster that all disasters start and end locally. They may have assistance from surrounding communities, states, or even nationally, but they will remain part of the community where they started.

The miracle of the human spirit, the saying that defined the volunteer response to the devastation and rebuilding in Joplin, was defined by the people of that community, individuals who helped one another on the worst day of their lives.

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And even now, five years later, we still remember. And I know that I would not have made a difference if it were not for the community in which we served. The volunteers were never the heroes. We were never meant to be heroes.

The heroes were already there.

The Scars That Shape Us

This past Friday, we remembered one of the most devastating tornadoes that struck our nation, running its finger of destruction through homes, businesses, and lives of those who both lived and worked there, and all those who were moved to respond.  Four years ago, on the evening of 22 May 2011, an EF-5 Tornado, one of the most destructive according to classification, ripped through the city of Joplin, MO.

To say that this storm affected our lives is an understatement.  At the time, I was serving as a member of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) with AmeriCorps, responding to the Good Friday Tornadoes in St Louis that struck just a month before.  That evening, the great wheels of response started, as members of the St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) and Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) began their journey through the night to arrive in the midst of the devastation.  The following morning, my team and the 20 other members of NCCC joined the second wave of ERT members to deploy.

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As a child, one of the movies that I watched time and time again (and is still one of my favorites) was Twister.  In it, one of the characters who has never experienced the wrath of nature asked the innocent question of what an EF-5 tornado was like.  Over the silence that fell across the table, one of the storm chasers responds, “The finger of God.”

The six mile path that cut its way through Joplin, over a mile wide at it’s widest point (according to the map of damage that I received before heading out into the field), is a vivid reminder of the force, the power, and the destruction caused by this force of nature.  Many claimed it to be an act of God. I don’t see how it couldn’t be. With winds reaching over 250 mph (some have told me they reached over 300 mph), the storm tossed vehicles, flattened structures, stripped the bark off trees, and turned lives upside down.

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Something happened in those first few weeks we stood on the ground.  We assisted with the Search and Rescue operations. Cleared unnamed streets. Began moving debris. Managed and led volunteers. Fell asleep exhausted. Laid awake unable to sleep because we knew what visions would be revealed in the dark of night. Cried. Mourned. And got up to face it each and every day.

This storm, that tornado left a scar that could be felt. We could see it each and every day out in the field. You can still see it today if you know what you’re looking for. But it reached much deeper than that. Lives were torn apart. Lost. Left amongst the ruins. Ripped apart by what we saw. You could feel it in each and every life of those who responded, those whose feet stood amid the destruction.

I see it more and more each year, in how we continue to live our lives.

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The AmeriCorps pledge states that “[we] will carry this commitment with [us] this year and beyond.” Many of us have continued to serve. Many of us will always serve. We have scattered across the nation and the globe, knowing that we have been shaped by these experiences. Shaped by this storm.

I still see the images. I won’t let them fade. I can’t. For, they are a part of me. They are a part of each of us.