48 Hours in Joplin

For this installment of my blog, I wanted to share with you my recent experience from last week while I was in Joplin, Missouri www.joplinmo.org responding to a search and recovery deployment from the aftermath of the recent  F5 tornado that hit the city.  Since October of 2010, I’ve had the privilege of being a member of the Eureka Fire Protection District’s Search and Rescue Team  www.efpd.org  .

At approximately 5:41 p.m. on May 22, a tornado described as being a half mile wide-touched down in Joplin. The tornado tracked on the ground for approximately four miles. There was damage to numerous residences and buildings, including St. John’s Hospital.  A few days after the tornado struck, our team received a formal request from the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (MO-SEMA;  www.sema.dps.mo.gov ) for a K-9 Search Team to assist in the recovery process.  Our team, that was sent to Joplin, consisted of three dogs, their handlers, and four “ground pounders” (that’s me).  My task on the team was to stay with my handler and his/her dog and provide support and security in addition to looking for victims.

Throughout my career, I’ve been involved in several disasters but always in a private sector Command and Control function.  I did have the opportunity back in the ‘90’s to be in both Homestead and Miami Florida and witness the destruction shortly after Hurricane Andrew.  However, going in as a responder this early after the event was new for me.

When we first drove into Joplin, I was completely taken back with what I saw.  Some parts of Joplin were untouched.  But in the areas where the tornado touched down, the pictures and television videos did not do justice to what we were actually seeing live and in person.  Everything was gone within the path of this monstrous storm.

Once we arrived in town, our first stop was to check-in at the Staging Area which was set-up across from where the hospital is located.  There, we saw teams of rescuers from all over.  Each day, this is where we’d check-in for our daily assignments and check-out with a debriefing that in turn would then be used in planning the next day’s assignments.  Within the Staging Area, we also had access to a medical treatment area for the human responders, a veterinarian clinic for the K-9 rescuers, and the Salvation Army for food and hydration.

The majority of our time was spent searching a large apartment complex (see before and after pictures). 

As we searched the surrounding area in addition to each apartment in the complex I was struck by things I saw.  In some apartments it was as if time stood still.  On the stove were fry pans with food still in them as folks were preparing their Sunday dinner when the tornado took place.  Light switches on the walls were still in the “on” position.  In some of the bathrooms, we saw pillows and/or mattresses in the bathtub where people took shelter.   In many of the apartments, the smoke detectors were still sounding … four days later.  The sound became almost eerie during a thunderstorm that developed during our search.  We were forced to seek shelter in the apartments due to the lightening and very heavy winds and rain.  While waiting for the storm to pass, we stood looking out over the destruction.  All of a sudden, the winds died down and all we heard were the sounds of smoke detectors going off throughout the complex.  One of the more ironic things strewn about that I saw was a small pamphlet titled “Emergency Preparedness Guide – What To Do When Disaster Threatens”.  When I found it lying outside on the ground, it was open to … Tornado.

Fortunately, all of the tenants living in the complex survived and escaped.  For each of them, the healing and recovery now begins.

A few of the things I learned (or re-learned):

  • Be prepared – take time to learn about the risks (man-made and natural) that you, your community, your business faces and create a plan.  A great starting place to develop a personal/family plan is “Ready In 3”  www.health.mo.gov/emergencies/readyin3  .  If you are a business person,” Ready In 3” can be an effective tool for each of your critical/essential employees (see my previous blog on this issue and then read this story … “The impact on the Joplin business community”  www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/05/27/national/main20066887.shtml )
    One of the things I think we take for granted is having our own personal transportation when we need it.  What happens when that’s taken away?  How will you get around?  Plan for it.
  • Take a deep breath and think before you act – Once the adrenalin starts flowing, we tend to make decisions without thoroughly understanding the problem or considering alternate solutions.  We tend to let the situation control us rather than us control the situation.  Take a deep breath.  Think through what your immediate, short and long-term priorities, needs, and resource gaps are.  When timely and appropriate, look to others for additional insight that you may not have.  Then, start taking charge of your situation by making sound decisions. 
  • Document, Document, Document.  This is a critical function everyone struggles with.  Whether you are an individual affected by an event or you are a responder, one of the first things you need to do is start documenting.   Remember to document who, what, when, where, how, and why.  Draw maps of the area.  Document names and contact information of people you are dealing with.  Make sure you document critical times (chronology).  And maintain your notes throughout the event.  Having a camera and perhaps a digital voice-recorder available can really help.
  • Financial planning is as important as disaster planning.  Before the disaster is the time to talk with your insurance agent to make sure you have the correct coverage as well as the appropriate amount.  You also need to ask, and understand, what documentation (i.e. receipts, pictures) you will be expected to provide after a disaster in order to quickly and effectively settle your claim.  And how long will that take?
    You should also talk with your financial planning person to address you’re your current financial situation and what steps need to be taken now in order to protect your finances after a disaster.
    After a disaster is not the time you and your family want to hear about any financial gaps you may have.
  • Doing something for others makes you feel good.  It was heartwarming to see the generosity that was pouring out throughout the community.  Many groups set-up feeding stations throughout the city and posted signs for free food.  Of course we saw the Salvation Army and Red Cross as well as many companies like Pizza Hut and Walgreens providing similar support.  Neighbors opened their homes up to those who no longer had one.  Several groups offered to fix flat tires for free.  Others sharpened chainsaw chains for free.  And there’s so much more.

If you would like to see and hear what some folks actually lived through during this tornado, watch this You Tube video “First Person Video of Joplin MO Tornado 5/22/11” www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQnvxJZucds&feature=related and listen to what took place in a small convenience store in Joplin.  It’s scary!

Then, watch the subsequent “Aftermath of First Person Joplin Tornado” www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_798728&v=W-P4P68YyNM&feature=iv

Tip:     Following a disaster, many times survivors are left wondering how to put their lives back in order – and what to do first.  The following FEMA link can help explain what to do.  HINT – Read this now, before you need it, to help in your planning efforts

             “A Guide To The Recovery Process”   www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=54966

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