What Joplin Did Right
None of us who were alive at the time of Katrina will ever forget the news that came out of New Orleans in the days after. A great tragedy was compounded by so many things that happened. The great news is that we learned our lesson.
It has now been seven months since the EF5 tornado ripped a gaping hole through the middle of our town on May 22, 2011. The middle, not the heart. We still have plenty of heart. This disaster has served to display some really remarkable things.
In the moments after the storm:
Immediately after the wind and noise stopped, as soon as it was light enough to see, people were out of their houses and in the streets, checking on their neighbors, knocking on their doors, looking for missing people and helping the hurt. The roads were filled with trees, cars, and parts of houses so that immediate disaster response was crippled. Yet everyone I know who has a pick-up drove as close as they could to help transport the injured to the surviving hospital, laying five and six people in the bed at a time. Neighbors helped each other drag trees and roofs out of streets and driveways. Injured people helped each other walk across debris to reach help. A child sitting in the back of an SUV was given a coat by a stranger passing by.
Through the night:
My husband, son and I had heard reports of some possible looters being spotted, so we decided to stay in our broken house that night, in the den which was dry at that time. Also I was reluctant to realize what had really happened. No sleep took place, so we heard everything that was happening all night long. The city was alive. There was the steady sound of sirens without a break for several hours, the background noise of car alarms and horns slowly draining their batteries, and the steady beep beep of bulldozers and snow shovels hard at work clearing the streets. By morning there was complete access, and because of the lack of street signs or landmarks, the names of the streets had been painted on every street. A remarkable accomplishment for a town of 50,000. Twice during the night police and firemen came to our house to check if all were safe, or any help needed. Once I stepped outside to watch the work, and immediately someone came by to see if I needed anything, and offered us water.
In the first week:
Immediately on the next day the churches were in action. They got together to set up relief stations, gave their buildings as shelter, took people into their homes and took to the phones and the streets to work. Also volunteers came from all over the country, bringing food and supplies and their own tents to camp out in while they worked. Cases of water were set out on every street corner. ATVs roamed the streets giving out food, first aid supplies and personal care products. Relief stations offered free counseling, Bibles and prayer, even acupuncture. The Red Cross and Fema also came, but the great brunt of the relief came from Christians. One church, in cooperation with town leadership, became a hub for relief and for volunteer assignment, filling their halls with food and clothing, and their parking lot with tents. Victims volunteered, damaged churches set up tents to participate in the relief work.
In an effort to control looting, the city decided to put into place permit baseed access to the tornado zone. Within a couple of hours they ran out of permits, and the next day decided to abandon the plan, and simply step up surveillance. I was very happy to see that they were so quick to recognize the difficulties with this plan and abandon it, so we could have free access to our property as we removed our things.
In the following days we saw many signs painted on the sides of ruined houses: "We are safe, praise God," "Thank you volunteers," "House (crossed out) Basement for sale," "House for sale, open floor plan, good ventilation, natural lighting," "You loot, we shoot," and many more. One official even made a statement that since the police force were working so hard under such stress, they would be given some latitude in dealing with looters. One looter was caught by civilians, stripped naked and duck taped to a pole for two hours or more before they called the police.
In the months after:
Joplin went to work in a frenzy to clear the rubble away. When a representative from FEMA came to examine the progress, he was surprised and asked, "Does everyone in town have a pick-up and chain saw?" Another official asked, "How in the world did you figure out in two days what took us two weeks?"
Now the crunch is over. Huge empty spaces of cleared land divide our town in two, FEMA has set up temporary housing for victims. Many new houses have been built and businesses re-opened, and construction in progress is all over. Stores have offered discounts to victims. Many of the displaced are settled in apartments or houses, ourselves included. Yet relief is still available in several places for victims still under stress. Churches have made long term commitments to continue to deal with the aftermath. The stream of volunteers has dwindled, but they are still coming.
So, what did Joplin do right? Immediate, firm, decisive action without any political games whatsoever. All worked together for the good of the town. But mostly what I see is what the Christians did right. We are in the heart of the Bible belt, and the Christian values of giving, helping and serving are strongly ingrained in our culture here. One of the big churches in town already had in place a network of volunteers and connections with city management from numerous former projects, so it was not a very large leap to redirect this effort when it was needed.
See also: Joplin EF5 Tornado - My Story