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Chaplain Recalls Observations in Joplin

Editor's Note:  Fr. John Harth let me know via email when he was headed to Joplin, wondering if I'd want a story about what he saw there.  Of course, I would.  His observations are most interesting and, I believe, show what can happen when neighbors help neighbors to recover from nature's wrath.

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WHEN THE TORNADO HIT

100 of 111 officers were on duty within 20 minutes.

It was chaos.  Communications were limited if available at all and many made on-the- spot decisions about where to go, what to do, and whom to help.

One officer was driving eastbound on I-44.  Next thing he knew, he was westbound in the westbound lanes.

People were in shock.  Many walked around with glazed looks on their faces, dazed and befuddled.

Some of the injured were ambulatory, bones projecting from their skin, some bleeding, some not.  Many were seriously hurt and the trauma to them was reminiscent of battle scenes.  At least one person had a nail in their head, not realizing they were even injured. Sadly, there were the beheaded, impaled, drowned, and mutilated.

Help came from everywhere and nowhere.  Many of the injured were transported on doors and plywood as stretchers, carried to help in the beds of pickup trucks.

Travel was difficult due to debris on the streets and there was much disorientation as street signs and landmarks were gone.

AS TIME WENT ON

A woman in a closet realized that her back was wet.  She turned around; the back wall was gone.

Another was asleep in bed.  When she awakened, she realized she and the bed were outside.

Two college men made it to a bathtub.  As the twister hit, the wall next to them came in, they were thrown against the bathroom door, which fell in on them.  In the calm, they were fine…..the tub was nowhere to be found.

Some officers assisted in areas with major destruction.  Others set to directing traffic.

Small street signs began to appear on corners, hung on wires stuck into the ground like for sale signs.  Names and numbers were painted onto pavement at intersections.

In retrospect, many officers felt overwhelmed and somewhat helpless.  They were reassured that they were where they were because that’s where they were supposed to be.

THEN CAME THE HELP

Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, ambulance crews, state troopers, medical professionals and others from over 400 agencies arrived to assist. 

Joplin has been sort of a big brother to departments around the area, assisting whenever needed.  This time, big brother needed help.

Directing traffic was a real challenge.  “That’s why I keep my whistle in my mouth---instead of those words, it comes out as a whistle.”

Condolences to the family of Riverside, MO, Officer Jeff Taylor, who died after being struck by lightning while directing traffic.

THE AFTERMATH

There were cars broken into and FEMA impersonators attempting to scam people, but overall there was little crime as compared to major disasters in some other locations.

4,000 residences destroyed, 3,500 damaged to some extent or other.

In instance after instance, neighbor helped neighbor.  Volunteers swarmed to town, sometimes more than could be used.

A French journalist arrived with a story concept in mind, but left having to rewrite those thoughts.  After seeing so many people helping each other, they were moved to say that such a response would never happen in France.

Joplin Police officers offer deep gratitude to all outside agencies for their help.  They also are proud of their department:  they did their jobs under duress, working long hours, and there was no bitching.

A NOTE ABOUT CHAPLAINS

Joplin PD has four volunteer chaplains, one of whom lost his home.  There were chaplains present throughout the first three weeks, one of them spending six hours standing watch over three bodies the night of the storm.  They assisted in supplying water and other needs, supplemented by International Conference of Police Chaplains Disaster Response team members and others.  At the morgue, it was pointed out that the presence of chaplains provided a calming effect for grieving family members.

AND A FEW INTERESTING ITEMS

Seen on the back window of a vehicle with Kansas plates:  NOT SIGHT-SEEING; THIS IS A RENTAL.

A couple of out-of-state men were arrested for looting.  It has been reported that jail inmates provided them a not especially welcoming special welcome.

A dog was running loose, trying to cross Range Lane, the east side north/south major thoroughfare.  A Jasper County Sheriff’s department car pulled into a nearby lot and the deputy emerged.  The dog tried crossing the street again, but came back; the deputy slowly walked toward the frightened animal, it would seem talking to it soothingly, and eventually bent down, picked it up, and walked with it toward the patrol car.  Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a K-9 officer.

One looter was jumped by several passersby, duck taped to a chair, duck taped over his mouth, LOOTER written on his forehead in magic marker, and told “Eventually someone will come by to get you.”  The citizen arresters then left and called police.

A nurse came upon the scene of serious injuries right after the tornado hit and left her car to help.  She helped so long that search and rescue teams were out looking for survivors and spray-painted an X on her brand new car.  When she returned and saw it, she remarked to bystanders: “Well, I guess I’m alright.”

God bless you, Joplin.  Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

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About The Author:

John Harth has been a Catholic priest and emergency services chaplain since 1987 and is a Master Level Chaplain and Life Member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, serving the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Cape Girardeau and Scott County Sheriff's Departments, Jackson and Kelso Police Departments, Jackson Fire/Rescue and the Cape Girardeau County Emergency Management Agency. He is pastor of the Immaculate Conception, Jackson. Fr. John is also a member of the Federation of Fire Chaplains and a charter member of the Missouri Fire Chaplain Corps.

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