Purdy AmeriCorps response in Joplin

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When the May 22 tornado devastated the Joplin community, a very special group of Purdy teachers sprang into action.

The AmeriCorps Purdy Reading Coaches were called to assist in the disaster on Monday morning, according to Renae Neill, Purdy's AmeriCorps director. As soon as teachers finished up with the final day of classes on May 23, they were off to Joplin to help staff the phone banks for the American Red Cross.

"Everyone was trying to help," Neill said. "It was chaos."

Purdy Reading Coaches started handling the phone lines at 6 p.m. and continued through the night until 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

"People were in a panic, distraught, looking for lost children," said Theresa Beaty, one of the 12 AmeriCorps volunteers who responded. "We were taking calls for lost relatives, survivors, hospital transfers and people calling to offer their homes."

The Red Cross had established dedicated phone lines for missing and deceased people, for those wishing to volunteer and one for donations.

"Some people just needed listening ears," added Debbie Carpenter, another volunteer. "They needed hope."

Obtaining accurate information was a challenge for volunteers, whose efforts were hampered by no electricity, no computers and no central point of contact site in those first chaotic hours.

"Many times I ended up telling people calling from out of town trying to find relatives that of the 50,000 people in Joplin, only 80 had been found dead," Beaty said. "I just told them that all communications were down and that was probably the reason they couldn't get through, but that there were shelters and hospitals, and the chances were good that their loved one was fine."

For many, that comforting voice on the other end of the phone line was all that was needed to calm the person until rescue and recovery efforts were more completed.

By the second week, the Purdy volunteers were called in to assist in making sweeps of the area, looking for the dead.

"We were in the heart of it," Beaty said. "There were lots of freezers overturned, and I can't tell you what a relief it was to find it was a Butterball turkey or a roast [inside] instead of a person."

The search team was comprised of other AmeriCorps volunteers from Arizona, Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Arkansas, as well as an Amish man from Seymour and the Purdy Reading Coaches.

"We had a grid to search, but that meant one person on the street, one in the alley and another in the back yards," Beaty said. "But the people we met! Some had such a sense of humor.

"One little old man, in his 80s, was sitting on a corner of the foundation of his house," Beaty continued. "He survived the storm in his home and neighbors had to come dig him out. He had the best sense of humor. We were carrying water bottles and he said, 'Now don't you be throwin' your trash in the yard.'

"He said he guessed God had another mission for him on this earth," Carpenter added. "In the midst of all that devastation, he was moving on."

"Others just told us their stories of how they survived," Carpenter said.

Another challenge faced by the search team was the complete lack of familiar landmarks.

"There are areas that you can't even tell what used to be there," Carpenter said. "Parts are completely flattened and others have just single walls still standing."

"Thousands of people were there, trying to help," Neill said. "These guys represent the people with a little bit of training and with a heart. They didn't require planning or guidance. That's what made the difference."

"A lot of people just showed up and asked us to send them where they were needed," Carpenter said.

"Tents popped up in the parking lot at the college," Neill added. "There is an AmeriCorps disaster group from St. Louis that will remain there for months. The thing we all have in common is being trained in CPR, first aid and disaster response."

One common trait for the people of the south is their propensity to bring food to any tragedy, personal or public.

"People were coming out of the woodwork," Beaty said. "There were church groups and organizations set up on parking lots cooking chicken, pulled pork and beef."

"People in cars were driving down the streets handing out sandwiches, water and snacks from their cars," Carpenter added.

Other groups that came in to help or offer moral support were the Springfield Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs.

"Everyone was giving, loving and caring," Beaty said. "They came together to support Joplin with love, talk and by just being there."

In a world tossed upside down, Joplin officials quickly organized transportation for volunteers to be taken to their job sites, thus reducing the amount of traffic in the impacted area.

"They lined up school busses at the college to take people where they needed to be," Beaty said. "Debbie and I went to City Hall one day to man the phones for the Joplin Tornado Assistance line. One woman called to offer to help pay for funerals."

Beaty said that many people had good intentions, but didn't bother to think about the logistics of getting donated food and items from the collection site to Joplin.

"One woman from California called with donations of clothing, many that still had the tags attached," she said. "But she hadn't thought about how she was going to get it here.

"Many times when we were talking to people, we had to figure out what their question really was," Beaty said.

Carpenter said she was surprised by the nature of the tornado's force.

"In the middle of everything that was demolished, we found two collector plates for Christmas without a scratch on them," Carpenter said. "We were encouraging people to get in there and recover their things, but it was so hard because many didn't know where their houses were supposed to be among all the rubble."

Personal items found by the volunteers, such as photo albums, law office records, personal papers and memorabilia were taken to headquarters, where they hoped owners would be able to find and claim them.

In addition to the Reading Coaches, members of the Purdy FFA, teachers and parents joined in the relief efforts, cooking about 1,000 meals and delivering them to the volunteers and victims in one neighborhood.

"Everyone joined in to help clean yards in this neighborhood," Carpenter said. "We had a lot of fine high school kids with us. They just went out and started asking people how they could help."

"This is an amazing place," added Beaty. "I'm proud to say I live in Purdy."

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