We got up early on the morning of July 30th and met the other volunteers at 7:00 a.m. at COR. There were nine of us in total who would make the 2-1/2 hour trip to Joplin, regardless of the high 90 degree temps for the day. Carol, our leader, provided a brief orientation with instructions on what to expect and what we might be assigned once we reached Joplin. This was Carol’s third mission trip to Joplin. She use to live near Joplin and unfortunately knew a teenager that had died in the tornado. We were able to purchase masks from Carol that we would need if we were assigned debris removal. We decided on our car pools, loaded up the cars with all the supplies that we each brought, and anxiously started on our journey towards Joplin.
We arrived in downtown Joplin and awaited our assignments from an Americorps representative. Things looked pretty normal. It looked like just another busy Saturday with several stores open and some traffic moving thru town. Little did we know that just two miles down the road lay the start of the incredible ruins where the tornado touched down and took 116 lives, adults and children.
We were excited to hear that we were assigned debris removal at three homes and learned that we should first rake the debris, scoop it up with a shovel and place it in a wheel barrel to avoid being injured by nails, glass, sharp metal, etc. After contacting the three owners of the property it was determined that one owner needed someone with heavy equipment to remove trees that fell on their property before other debris could be removed. The second owner said that we would have to track down the new buyer of the house to sign a release to enter the property since the house was sold right before the tornado hit and the sale was now a legal matter. The third owner said that debris had been cleared already from their property. We were disappointed that we couldn’t immediately get to work in helping these folks.
We then moved on to load a U-Haul for a woman and her son whose apartment complex was destroyed in the tornado. After the tornado, they had salvaged some of their belongings and brought the items to her mother’s garage in the part of Joplin that was not hit by the tornado. The woman and her son managed to find another place to live in Springfield, MO, and needed help loading the U-Haul. When our team arrived at the garage and walked in with our work gloves on ready to help, they had a brief look of disbelief and gratitude that strangers showed up out of nowhere to help them. Although we never met these people before, we all quickly bonded and got the job done.
We then drove into what I can only describe as an obliteration of a neighborhood that stretched on for miles. We parked, got out of our cars, and were stunned by what we saw. There were streets with driveways, but no houses where the tornado had ripped them off their foundation, blew them apart, and scattered them in piles and piles of rubble. There were large pieces of thick steel wrapped around tree limbs like ribbons, mangled cars where rescue and recovery teams sprayed white X’s on their doors, sprawled within the piles of rubble. The high school was completely shattered with large pieces of thick metal beams tossed and twisted. We saw the hospital that was destroyed, the church that was destroyed with only a metal cross standing, and trailers that drug stores like CVS and Walgreen’s were operating to provide needed prescriptions. While the tornado occurred on May 22nd, we saw workers just setting up the government FEMA trailers at the local airport for the victims who lost their homes.
We then drove to a Relief Center and signed in as volunteers. The Relief Center provided those who lost their homes and contents a place to pick up toiletries, diapers, soap, other basic needs without cost, and to select donated clothes for both adults and children. We were assigned unpacking, sorting, and helping survivors find the right sizes and types of clothes they were seeking for themselves or their kids. Several of us helped a young woman about 24 years of age who had no use or movement of her right arm which was bandaged. She was looking thru boys toddler clothes and held up a shirt and turned to us and said “I lost my son in the tornado, he was two years old, but was small for his age because he was a preemie baby. He had this same shirt.” We remembered that Carol had told us earlier in the morning that it was important for us to take the time to listen if victims began to tell their stories, it helps them to cope and heal when they talk about what they went through. The young woman spoke apologetically saying that she and her husband had taken cover in their house when the warning sirens went off. She held her son and her husband laid over them. When the tornado hit all she remembers is emergency personnel tending to her and her husband’s injuries, and waiting to hear if someone found her son. Their son was not found alive. They lost their home, all their belongings, and their son. A few others told their stories, where they were when the tornado hit, how they took cover, how their homes were destroyed or family members or friends were injured or died in the tornado. There were many people who came into the tent to pick up clothes while we worked, as they searched through the piles of clothes, we all felt that if there was anything, anything at all, that we could do for them, they just needed to ask.
While we saw the destruction of homes, buildings, schools, and the hospital, and wonder how Joplin will even begin to start to rebuild, it’s the people who survived the tornado that we met during the day that blessed our lives, by letting us provide some help as they begin putting their lives back together. We were also touched by the other volunteers that worked beside our team who travelled in cars and by buses for several hours to do whatever they could to lend their helping hands. We didn’t know the names of these other volunteers, but we all worked side by side just knowing with little direction, what to do.