Survivors' needs is focus in Joplin

While rescuers continue to comb the rubble from Sunday's horrific tornado, disaster responders begin to plan response

BY JOHN PAPE | JOPLIN, MO | May 26, 2011

Even as the search for survivors continues in tornado-ravaged Joplin, a number of faith-based organizations were mobilizing to provide relief and recovery services.

As of Wednesday, the death toll in Joplin stood at 125 as search parties continued to comb through piles of debris that mark much of the southwest Missouri city of 50,000.

In addition to the dead, some 750 were injured when the EF-5 tornado tore through the city Sunday. Some 2,000 people remain missing and searchers fear the number of dead will rise as many of the missing will be found amid the massive piles of wreckage.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said the tornado “split the town in half.”

Included in the path of destruction was St. John’s Regional Medical Center, one of the city’s two major hospitals. Several of the fatalities occurred when the tornado struck the hospital.

The American Red Cross has provided emergency shelter and immediate aid supplies. Two days after the twister hit, more than 100 survivors remained housed at a Red Cross shelter at Missouri State Southern University. Others who lost their homes found temporary shelter at area motels some as far away as Baxter Springs, KS or with friends and family.

In addition to the shelter operation, the Red Cross was also providing tarps, gloves, rakes and dust masks, as well as comfort kits containing daily essentials such as shampoo and toothpaste.

In partnership with AmeriCorps and the Southern Baptist Convention, Red Cross volunteers helped set up a reception area to coordinate the influx of volunteers into the city.

One such volunteer is Kansas volunteer firefighter Wills Anderson. Anderson said he saw a call for help while watching television coverage of the tornado and decided to make his way to Joplin.

“I was watching it all on TV when they announced the needed medics, firefighters and police officers to help out. I’m a trained firefighter and certified emergency medical technician, so I thought I’d come down and try to help out,” Anderson said. “I’m self employed I run my own machine shop so I’ve got some flexibility in my work schedule. If I can help out, I’m glad to do it.”

Like most who see the destruction in Joplin, Anderson said he was “stunned at degree of the damage.” He compared the scene to that following the EF-5 tornado that struck Greensburg, Kansas, in May 2007.

“I’ve lived almost all my life in Kansas, so I’ve seen a lot of tornado damage over the years. I’d say this is equal to Greensburg, only on a much larger scale,” he said. “Greensburg may have been completely destroyed, but that was a town of only 1,500 people. Joplin is much larger and there’s clearly a much greater loss of life and property.”

Other faith-based organizations sending aid and relief services to Joplin included the Salvation Army, Disciples of Christ, Mennonite Disaster Services, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The Reformed Church in America is one of a number of faith-based organizations partnering with the Emergency Response Program of Church World Service.

UMCOR Disaster Response Coordinator, the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, was on scene in Joplin directing his agency’s initial damage assessment. Ironically, Hazelwood had been in Kansas City, some 150 miles to the north, attending a conference of disaster relief organizations when the EF-5 hit Joplin.

Even as UMCOR assessed the long-term recovery needs, several local churches, some of which sustained damaged of their own, were tending to the community’s immediate needs for food, water and shelter. One such church was Christ’s Community United Methodist Church, pastored by the Rev. Christopher Sloan.

Sloan compared the aftermath to looking at a “lunar landscape.” He said the tornado left such a clear mark on Joplin that “when you get on a hill, you can see a path through the city.”

Sloan also serves as a fire department chaplain and helped set up an emergency medical services response center after the tornado struck. His church, which had power but no water, was open as a shelter, using its 30 classrooms to provide emergency shelter to those who were left homeless by the storm. The church was used being used as a receiving point for supplies and volunteers.

Additionally, a disaster-response team from the Missouri Annual Conference, which includes the Joplin area, was expected to use the church as its headquarters for tornado response.

Sloan said the church was also reaching out to help its own.

“We’re finding out how many people in our congregations have lost their houses,” he said.

Sloan also confirmed the sanctuary of another church, St. Paul’s United Methodist, was destroyed by the tornado, although the rest of the structure remained standing. The conference also reported that St. James United Methodist Church was destroyed and its southwest district office next to it was damaged.

At Joplin’s First United Methodist Church, receptionist Sue Cowen spent Monday morning fielding calls from congregants, people from other parts of Missouri and even out-of-state churches. The church, a 100-year-old stone building, was intact and open “to anyone who wants to get out of the rain,” Cowen said. “We have many members with no home, no nothing anymore.”

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee was also on-site to assess needs in the stricken city. Like Hazelwood, CRWRC Disaster Response Service Director Bill Adams was at the Kansas City conference when the tornado hit and responded directly to Joplin. There he joined CRWRC program manager Art Opperwall.

Opperwall said the CRWRC was in the process of determining both immediate and long-term recovery needs.

“Devastating disasters like this one call for not only an immediate response, but for reconstruction and rehabilitation that could potentially last several years,” he said.

Also on-scene was Mennonite Disaster Service Response Coordinator Jerry Klassen, who arrived even as additional storms pounded the already-crippled city. He joined MDS Missouri Unit leaders to coordinate relief efforts.

Several MDS Early Response Teams from Missouri arrived on Tuesday to begin tree removal and clean-up and roof repairs in an area at the perimeter of the most serious damage.

Another group of volunteers from the Oklahoma MDS Unit are scheduled to arrive on Friday to assist with clean-up, and a search and rescue team from Arkansas was being called in to help with the search for additional survivors and victims.

Klassen said part of the initial assessment included talking with storm survivors.

“There is a huge amount of shock and disbelief. We talked to one man who was distraught; his wife passed in December, he is disabled and now his house lies in shambles,” Klassen said.

Klassen also said the scope of the devastation was difficult to comprehend.

“(The tornado) hit the downtown area, industrial areas, businesses big and small and in rural, farming areas,” he said. “And it hit a huge, huge amount of homes.”

Another church offering shelter and relief services to storm victims was the First Christian Church of Joplin. Undamaged, the church served as an initial shelter before the larger shelter at Missouri Southern State University could be put into operation. It continues to serve as a drop-off location for relief supplies.

To provide meals for storm victims and rescue personnel, the Salvation Army sent an emergency disaster service team from Kansas to carry out mass feeding operations from a mobile kitchen. The kitchen is capable of feeding thousands of meals per day. Additional Salvation Army disaster teams were also being dispatched to Joplin.

In addition to the faith-based disaster services, President Barack Obama committed support from FEMA and the National Guard to help in the rescue and recovery operations.

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