One month after a massive tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, leaving more than 150 people dead and thousands without homes, the American Red Cross continues to assist residents in their recovery.
Signs of hope and resilience are evident throughout the community, but devastation and pain remain in the wake of the tornado, underscoring the importance of the help provided by Red Cross workers and donors.
The Red Cross responded within hours of the storm’s passing, drawing from a cadre of chapter volunteers and workers. In the days and immediate weeks after the storm, more than 800 Red Cross workers poured into Joplin from across the United States to distribute food, water, snacks and cleanup kits and offer assistance with mental health and spiritual care.
From the university gymnasium that sheltered displaced residents, to the 21 emergency response vehicles that traveled through destroyed neighborhoods, to the volunteers who came from as far away from Hawaii, the Red Cross offered its unique brand of aid in Joplin as it has in dozens of communities affected this spring by tornadoes, floods and wildfires.
“For people who suddenly find themselves in the midst of a disaster, the Red Cross becomes the help of first resort,” said Keith Stammer, emergency management director for Joplin and surrounding Jasper County. “Knowing Red Cross assistance will be there for the long term is a great comfort to the people affected. They recognize the symbol, the vests, the care that shows on the workers’ faces.”
Some of the earliest care in Joplin started at Missouri Southern State University, whose campus sits on the northeast side of the city. Less than a month before the storm, on April 28, Missouri Southern signed an agreement with the Red Cross to serve as a mega shelter in the event of disaster. Training classes in shelter management were scheduled for faculty and staff, but nature did not follow the schedule.
“Never did we dream that this [shelter] would be needed so quickly,” said the university’s vice president for student affairs, Darren Fullerton, who provided Red Cross health and safety training for 24 years. “The ink was barely dry on the agreement.”
Within two hours of the tornado’s passing, faculty and staff arrived at the campus to convert the gymnasium from the site of the Joplin High School graduation to a shelter that would soon house as many as 300 people.
Fullerton was surprised to see the university’s dean of arts and sciences pitching in to set up cots; he later learned that the dean and his wife were volunteers as well as clients—their home had been destroyed.
The university served as a Red Cross shelter for almost three and half weeks, as well as home for search-and-rescue teams and headquarters for AmeriCorps volunteers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other Red Cross partners.
“Missouri Southern was the center point of the Red Cross response in Joplin,” said Brian Keath, regional director of emergency services for the Red Cross. “We could not have helped people as much we did without their facilities and volunteers.”
As residents’ immediate needs for shelter, food and water were met, Red Cross workers began delivering cleanup kits containing masks, gloves, rakes, brooms and mops. Dave Orwig of LaGrange, Ga., arrived in Joplin June 1 to supervise bulk distribution of the cleanup kits. At the height of delivery, more than 17,000 clean-up items a day went out the door of a warehouse on the west side of Joplin.
Orwig, who had just finished a stint as a Red Cross worker in response to tornadoes in Georgia, said he was “shocked” by the extent of the destruction in Joplin. Orwig was not the only Red Cross volunteer who came to Joplin on back-to-back disaster response. Michael Puryear came from Chattanooga, Tenn., where he joined the Red Cross after a tornado hit his community.
In Joplin earlier this week, he supervised client services from a storefront that was still registering 20-plus people a day, down from 75 to more than 100.
The continuing need was obvious. At the disaster relief center, children's drawings were taped to the wall. In crayon, Carson and Cassandra had drawn yellow suns, blue houses, multi-colored flowers and, above them all, the black and brown inverted triangles of swirling tornadoes.
A few blocks away from the Red Cross storefront, debris has been cleared from most of the streets in the storm’s six-mile path, but the blocks where homes and businesses once stood are piles of shredded wood, shattered bricks and mangled wallboard.
Many structures were leveled, but others were sliced open and bear testimony to the violence of the tornado. A second-floor apartment is missing two walls and a roof, but clothes in dry cleaning bags hang neatly in a closet. A few blocks away, a single wall supports a doorless cabinet where carefully stacked bowls and plates are the only evidence that a kitchen and home once stood there.
Seeing the destruction and working with those in need of Red Cross assistance "truly puts things in perspective," Puryear said. "I'll be here as long as it takes."
The Red Cross response in Joplin and all the communities affected by disasters is possible because of the generosity of donors from all across the country.
“Give your supporters a big thank you—with all capital letters,” said Joplin resident Linda Shepherd, whose grandson learned to recognize a specific Red Cross emergency response vehicle as it delivered food and juice to her neighborhood. “We really appreciate the Red Cross.”