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Volunteers help MO farmers

Volunteers are helping clean debris from farmers' fields in Missouri.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | May 29, 2003


"County-wide there are reports of debris fallout that are several miles from the actual tornado sites."

—Ed Browning


People take notice when a tornado strikes a populated area. The damage is obvious: people are killed and injured, buildings are destroyed and damaged.

What people pay less attention to especially city folks is what tornadoes do the countryside. Since much of a tornado's path runs through sparsely populated, rural areas, it stands to reason that most of storm's fury is expended far away from humans.

These rural fields also accumulate a substantial amount of the debris picked up by a tornado. This is the stuff that is causing serious problems for farmers in southwest Missouri, according to Ed Browning, natural resource engineering specialist for the Jasper County University Outreach and Extension Office.

"County-wide there are reports of debris fallout that are several miles from the actual tornado sites," Browning said. "Several of them have wheat fields, and in the next 30 days or so, they're going to begin combining it. If they don't see the debris, they're going to run it through their machines."

Running debris through farm machinery is only one problem, Browning said. There is also plenty of fiberglass insulation scattered all over southwest Missouri. While it may look like cotton candy, it sure doesn't taste like it, and tooth decay is the last thing a cow will have to worry about if the animal is unfortunate enough to take in a few mouthfuls. To complicate matters, this is the season for haying, and insulation can easily get mixed up in the bales.

Ingestion of fiberglass can present a potentially fatal problem for livestock, he said, because the fiberglass can get stuck in a cow's digestive tract. Depending where the fiberglass gets stuck, it can either prevent excrement from going out, or block food from being properly digested.

"I don't know if there would be much of a treatment," Browning said. "You know an animal can't talk, so you don't know what the problem is."

Debris-littered fields will also be a problem for farmers preparing to plant new crops specifically row crops, like corn. In this case, farmers will have to be careful not to run over debris that may puncture tractor tires.

Browning said financial help for debris removal may become available through a recently-established state program, although funding has not yet been approved. In the meantime, there have been reports of some farmers paying up to $2,000 per day to rent out a gigantic electromagnet to pick up metal debris that might damage farm equipment.

"But even then," Browning said, "if you don't cover every inch of ground, you're not going to get everything."

Additional help, however, is being made available, in the form of human volunteers. The United Methodist Committee on Relief, in conjunction with the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church, have been sending out debris cleanup teams, which, in addition to cleaning up residential areas, are also helping out on the farms.

Karen Benson, disaster response coordinator for the Missouri Conference, has been sending out teams of volunteers to help the farmers.

"We have farmers who can't turn livestock out into the fields because of the debris," she said. "Plus you can't go into a field and cut hay when there are scraps of tin and wire out in the fields."

Besides Jasper County, where Browning works, four other counties Lawrence, Christian Cedar and Polk also have significant amounts of debris.

"The objective is just to have all the debris removed and not to have to deal with it again," she said.

Lawrence County, in particular, has stated the bold, and perhaps impossible, goal of removing all debris within 30 days. The timeframe started last week, Benson said. In order for that goal to be achieved, Benson estimates that at least 200 volunteers would have to work every day. But Benson, as well as The Salvation Army and AmeriCorps, which are also bringing in workers, have not always been able to get that kind of support.

"We've hit 200 a day some days," she said. "When school is out, that will make a big difference."

Most of the volunteers are locals, she said, but not all of them.

"We've had calls from up and down the East Coast, as well as the West Coast," Benson said. "We've had calls from all over the country."


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