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Witness to history

Lyle Welch
(Editor’s Note: Emeritus professor of mathematics Lyle Welch moved to Joplin, Mo., following his retirement from Monmouth College in 2009. His following account was submitted on June 29.)

The most recent history of Joplin, Mo., will now be divided into two parts: that which leads up to 5:41 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, 2011, and that which follows. The history which follows is now five weeks old and has already matured beyond what we could have imagined.

The history of May 22 before 5:41 p.m. included the graduation ceremonies for the senior class of Joplin High School at nearby Missouri Southern State University. But instead of remembering that day as one of accomplishment, they will always remember it as the day when one of their classmates died as his father’s Hummer was caught in the storm on their way home. The superintendent of Joplin’s schools drove across the storm’s path from north to south and was just enough south of the storm to be safe. He did not realize how much his job was about to change when he found that not only the high school but also one elementary building were completely leveled and more than 40 percent of the elementary school children were displaced from their homes. In his opening statement the following week, he announced that the classes would begin as scheduled on Aug. 17. Part of this plan included relocating the juniors and seniors of Joplin High into modular classrooms in the community mall.

The campuses of Missouri Southern and Ozark Christian College in Joplin quickly became valuable resources for housing-displaced victims and for localizing community aid. MSSU’s gymnasium was transformed into emergency housing for storm victims. Their recreation center became the AmeriCorps Volunteer Resource Center. OCC’s multipurpose building became headquarters for the American Red Cross.

The churches of Joplin have also been extremely valuable during the immediate recovery, functioning as drop-off points for donations, distribution centers for those affected by the storm and headquarters for volunteer coordination.

My personal story is relatively unremarkable. The early Sunday afternoon included a tornado watch, but the only storms on the weather radar were located at least 75 miles to the northwest in Kansas. At about four in the afternoon, I noticed that one storm was growing in intensity on the radar and that each pass of the radar brought it closer to Joplin. By 4:11 p.m., the tornado sirens had begun sounding, and at that moment, I knew that this wouldn’t be an ordinary storm. My wife, Judy, and I took cover in an interior bathroom in our home. Fortunately, we didn’t need it for protection as the storm track ended some two miles to the south of our home. When I later reviewed the damage to homes similar to ours, I realized that we were not nearly as safe as we had thought. Two miles away was certainly too close.

There was a message broadcast on the radio that evening, warning us to remain in our homes if we were not trained to provide emergency assistance. On Monday morning, I joined my oldest son, Doug, who also lives in Joplin, and whose home also escaped the storm, and met with a small group of volunteers at our church. Setting out to help our fellow church members, we were only able to get to the western edge of the storm’s wake, but that was enough to understand the depth of our catastrophe. We did the best we could. We aided a family in recovering a few personal items from their home, which had only interior walls remaining. We helped another family cover the roof of their house with a blue tarp. In the afternoon, we walked on the street between Home Depot and Wal-Mart (both completely decimated) to help another family retrieve some clothes and personal items. Most of their roof was missing, but the side walls were surprisingly still intact. Their Sunday evening meal was still on the stove and the table was set ready for a meal that would never be eaten.

I spent the remainder of the week at my church, helping distribute the massive amounts of donated supplies and spending time with other volunteers who had humbly stepped up to serve a city in crisis. Each day was different and brought new challenges, both difficult and unexpected.

During those first few days, I was particularly struck by the three stories. There is a student at the Bible College in Joplin where my son teaches who is from Central Africa. When we saw him Monday morning, he said that he has been in three wars and has never seen anything like this. I have taught a low level math class at Missouri Southern the past two semesters. The very best student in my spring semester class was in the middle of the storm and lost everything. I only know this because she came to the church building where I was working to get a few things. The look in her eyes told the story of her past week and her near future. Finally, there is at least one family who moved to Joplin after losing everything in New Orleans. Now they have lost everything here. I will leave it to you to try to imagine what they must be thinking at this time.

The statistics of the storm: 18,000 cars destroyed, 6,954 homes destroyed (plus 875 homes damaged), 1,150 injuries, approximately 500 businesses affected and one hospital destroyed. The death toll is currently at 158 souls. The storm’s path was 6-1/2 miles long and the amount of debris that needs to be removed will exceed the wreckage from the Twin Towers of 9/11.

Keith Stammer, Joplin’s emergency management director, told me of the rule of ten in these destructive situations. The initial response -- which included sweeping the area six times in search and recovery, clearing streets and planning for debris removal -- took 10 days. The second phase of debris removal will take 10 times as long, or 100 days. Reconstruction will then take 10 times as long as that, for a total of 1,000 days.

I asked him, “What does Joplin need now?”

His answer was, understandably, “Time.”

Let me conclude with some lessons learned on the ground. We were both blessed and burdened by the amount of donations coming into the city. The initial recovery would have been much more difficult without the donations of water, medicine, chain saws, portable generators, building materials, pet food and others. But we spent a lot of time dealing with supplies that we could not use, including a surplus of used clothing. When you donate to a disaster region in the future, please carefully listen to the needs of the area. The needs of the current flood victims in North Dakota and those along the Missouri River here in Missouri will be much different than the needs that existed in Joplin. In addition, if you deliver these supplies yourself, please be sure to allow enough time in the delivery process to make sure you get them to a location that can use them. I spent part of one morning loading up two pickup loads of used clothing that had be left on the church parking lot. I was forced to toss them in the dumpster because they had gotten wet and were molding.

So how can you help? Feel free to donate to Joplin, but understand that there are still those in your own community who have encountered their own personal storms of life. Most catastrophes won’t make the front page of the New York Times. Spend some time this summer determining where in your community you are needed most and seek to meet that need. Not only will this help your community in the present but it will also provide necessary experience for the future in case some unexpected disaster would arise. Our church community was only performing kindergarten exercises in disaster relief before this storm forced us into a college-level course, but that experience was extremely valuable in organizing the first week,

Above all, continue to remember Joplin. We don’t have the privilege of the media cycle. We can’t move on, and we can’t forget. We’ll be here for a while, rebuilding. But while we are, continue to remember us and pray.

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