Learning From Joplin's First Responders

By: Jodi Baker Email
By: Jodi Baker Email

It's been nearly six months since an F-5 tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, claiming 134 lives. This week, the town's first responders are in Omaha to share what went right and what went wrong.

More than 400 emergency workers from 21 states are attending a two-day conference at the downtown Hilton hotel, which wraps up Wednesday.

"Communication is huge," said Sharon Medcalf, of the Center For Emergency Education out of Omaha, hosting the event. Federal dollars helped establish the center after 911, a joint endeavor between Creighton University School of Medicine and University of Nebraska Medical Center. In the years since, their efforts have broadened beyond the scope of terrorism to all kinds of disasters.

In Joplin, Medcalf pointed out, wireless towers were either down or jammed up. "They knew the only thing they could rely on was the occasional text. So getting communications back up and running is big," she said.

"We've got lots of plans here in Omaha for establishing ham radios in our hospitals, but remember some of those things are stored in hospitals." That's why, she said, it's important to have a back-up plan for a back-up plan, a big point of Tuesday's discussions.

Joplin's emergency personnel talked about their hospital situation, St. John's, the go-to in their written disaster plans, took a direct hit. It meant they had to improvise, something Omaha-area responders hope to avoid should disaster strike here.

A local couple was among the first volunteers from across the country to descend on Joplin in that first few days, to help wherever they could. Reed Davis met his wife, Shannon there, when they attended college. They now live in Gretna.

"I think, just like anything, that could happen here. And we were hoping that people would do the same thing to help us out," said Shannon. They took as many supplies as they could fit in their truck, everything from non-perishable food to toiletries.

"I think they handled things really well, the community really came together," Reed said. He didn't see any chaos, as far as rescuers were concerned. But he and his wife did notice the onslaught of gawkers, who drove into town just to check the damage. They said it made it hard for emergency crews to get where they needed to be.

If we can take away any one thing from Joplin's disaster, Reed believes it should be a sense of community. "We should be closer-knit and support each other a lot more than after a disaster," he said.

"And I feel like we should have that pride in our community, in our country, all the time."

The couple noted how amazed they are at how far Joplin has come in a relatively short period of time. One sign of progress - the Wal-Mart, which was leveled, reopened last week. One eager shopper noted, Naomi Miller, said, "We are so excited. This is the highlight since the tornado." It's a hint of the sense of normalcy residents there are still trying to achieve.

Wednesday's talks at the Hilton conference will focus on behavioral and mental health issues, during and post-crisis. In the months following Joplin's tornado, twelve residents have committed suicide.

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