Here is a note I posted on my FaceBook page and had full intentions of putting it over onto the blog. However, due to work and personal obligations I have not been able to do so until now. I wrote this blog on June 1, 2011, the day I returned from spending 3 days in Joplin supporting the law enforcement effort. The title holds true but there is no way I can describe what I saw and heard during my tour in Joplin.
I was honored to respond and work with 11 of the best law enforcement officers I have the privilege of calling my friends. I am not taking away from any other members of our department, as they are all outstanding and dedicated individuals. However, the 7 who volunteered to go on teams 1 and 2, as well as team 3, that did not deploy, are an awesome testament to their dedication to humanity and their fellow Missourians. I, and all of us who went, are forever changed by our response and the shear magnitude of this natural disaster so close to home.
The City of Cameron Police Department extends our deepest condolences to the citizens of Joplin, MO for the loss of loved ones and the total devastation of the central part of their community. We pray for peace, strength and guidance as the debris removal and recovery phases begin. Our brothers and sisters in emergency services did what they could in a surreal and nearly impossible scene within the first few hours after the tornado.
Here is my story about the small part Cameron PD had in the response to Joplin, MO. The Cameron Police Department was contacted by the Missouri Police Chief’s Association (MPCA) and the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) on Thursday morning May 26, 2011 and asked to deploy officers to Joplin, MO to support the law enforcement effort after the devastating tornado that struck on May 22, 2011. This was several days after the tornado and there had been an outpouring of support from emergency services from Missouri as well as other states and I was not sure what to expect when we arrived.
We collected gear, supplies, and obtained officers who volunteered to go on the first team. The teams were composed of four officers per team. All of the officers who responded could sustain themselves for 72 hours if need be. A lot of these aforementioned supplies were donated and one business in particular opened their doors on Saturday to allow us to finish getting the gear we needed for our deployment.
We want to thank our fellow officers who pulled some extra shifts to keep things running smoothly at home. We cannot thank our families enough for supporting us through this response. In addition we want to thank the businesses who donated supplies/gear and opened their store on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Our community is great and supports our efforts each and every day. Most of them realize this could have easily happened in Cameron and we would hope help would arrive from all areas of the State of Missouri. On that very note, Joplin had utility crews on the ground in the early 90’s after Cameron suffered a devastating ice storm and it was our turn to return the favor.
We briefed our team at the PD and they left Cameron around noon on Friday May 27. They arrived on scene and worked 3 twelve hour shifts leaving on Memorial Day to come home. Their stories were heart wrenching and the work they were doing was beyond my mental comprehension at the time. I maintained contact with them and made sure they were doing ok but was frustrated that I was not on the ground with them.
I wanted to be on the first team, as I will never ask our officers to do something I would not or have not done, but our air show table top exercise was Friday night and I felt I would be a better service to our community by staying behind and coordinating the exercise. Our air show is expected to draw a large crowd and could possibly be the largest event we ever hosted. This was a tough decision for me to make!
A MSHP Sergeant, whom we had never met, called and left me a message at work on Sunday night praising the work our officer’s were doing in Joplin. He said he had never worked with a more professional bunch of officers that did what they were told to do no matter how mundane the assignment was. This type of work ethic and attitude is what our entire department is made of and I am glad I received the call. It makes us all feel good to hear our efforts are being noticed by officers from outside agencies that we do not even know.
I made sure I was on the second team of officers to respond and we left around 11:30 a.m. on Memorial Day. We were able to stay with a fellow officer’s family in Fairland, OK on the Grand Lake of the Cherokee. This kept Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) open for other first responders and kept the shelters open for the people who needed it. We cannot thank Aunt Sherri and her family enough for their hospitality, accommodations and meals while we were there!
We arrived at the briefing at approximately 6:00 p.m. on Monday night. We met with an MSHP Sergeant who provided us with our assignment. We were assigned Post 19, which was on the east side of town where there had been very little law enforcement presence over the last week. Our assignment was to be a law enforcement presence in the area, provide traffic control at the round-a-bout, moving patrols to prevent looters and enforce the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
We also spoke with a Joplin Police Department Lieutenant and Sergeant. We asked him if the PD guys/gals were doing ok. He said they were doing pretty good and relayed a story that one of the officer’s was on patrol warning folks when he was hit by the outer edge of the tornado. He said it lifted the patrol car and sent him on a death defying ¾ mile ride. The officer only sustained minor injuries all by the Grace of God!
Post 19 was actually in the City of Duquesne and was located at 20th Street and Duquesne Avenue. This area was east of Rangeline and behind Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other businesses. This area was assessed by the NWS as having EF-4 and EF-5 damage. Here is a link of the tornado track and other information that was prepared by the NWS in Springfield, MO: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/sgf/?n=event_2011may22_summary
We fueled our patrol vehicles at the Joplin Public Works Building and met a Public Works worker there. He was tired and worn out and shared he was working the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. He said his job was mechanical repair, fueling first responder vehicles and coordinating tire repair. He said he was not directly affected by the tornado but knew several who were. You could see the exhaustion in his face and eyes but we also could see the thanks for us being there in his speech and comments directed at us.
We arrived at Post 19 and set up our presence. We were contacted by many citizens who were glad to see us in the area and talked with us about the looting. They said looters were robbing them blind after dark and they were doing everything they could do to protect what was left of their property.
A fellow officer told us to look at the southwest corner of our intersection. He explained this was the convenience store where people took shelter in the walk-in freezer. This store was featured on CNN and ABC’s Good Morning America. The store was a mound of busted up concrete blocks, bent steel I-beams and cars tossed around like a toy. These folks were very lucky as the tornado was producing EF-4 to EF-5 level winds in this area. Follow these links to see the video from inside the freezer as the tornado struck and the view of it the next day in sunlight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQnvxJZucds
One citizen told us the Wal-Mart store was looted as soon as the storm had passed. He said there were people still trapped and screaming inside, while the looters were packing out televisions and other items without regard for those hurt and trapped by debris. What has happened to decency and compassion for another human being?
We met Joplin citizen after citizen who thanked us for being there to help them. They asked where we were from and were amazed we had traveled so far for them. They wanted to make sure we had food and something to drink. Many brought food and water to us throughout the night.
These were citizens who had been impacted directly by the tornado and had lost everything, yet they were more concerned about us and our well being! We explained to them we were there for them and offered any assistance we could. Most of our assistance to the citizens were just listening and letting them vent their feelings and emotions to us about what they had been through. Many talked about family members who had been killed or recently died, some were about family members who were missing, and others were about pets, personal belongings that cannot be replaced (pictures was the biggest one), and friends/family recovering in the hospital.
An 84 year old man came through our check point somewhere around 11 p.m. He said he lived north of 20th in Duquesne, MO and was going home after a long day. He said he had lived in the Joplin area for the last 44 years. I asked him if his home had been affected by the tornado and he said no. He did say he had family that was in the middle of it and they survived and were ok.
I noticed he was wearing a US Navy ball cap and asked if he was a veteran and he said yes. I always thank our veteran’s when I see them but this meant more to me as it was Memorial Day and I was standing in the middle of a completely devastated area. However, I was not prepared for what was about to happen or the emotions I was going to have to make sense of.
I shook his hand and thanked him for his service to our country. He squeezed my hand tightly and said, “I want to thank you for helping us today, what I did was many years ago, but what you are doing is now, you are making a difference and we appreciate it.” I mustered all I could to keep myself together to tell this man, who had done so much for our country during World War II, I appreciated his kind words. Here is a man who donated 26 years of his life to our country in the US Navy and had just narrowly escaped a deadly and devastating tornado and he is thanking me.
He kept squeezing my hand and asked if I had a minute to talk. I told him I was there as long as he needed me to be there. He told me he was on a ship that landed in Japan after Hiroshima. He said he had seen devastation and this was nothing compared to what he saw overseas. He added it was going to take a long time for Joplin to recover and he hoped he would live long enough to see it.
He shared that he had lost his wife of 66 years in August 2010. He said she was his best friend and he missed her dearly. He said the tornado was devastating for many in Joplin but he had fared pretty well all considered. However, he did not have anyone to vent to that had not been affected one way or another. He thanked me again as cars began to back up behind him at Post 19. He drove off and I never saw him again the three days we were in Joplin.
Early on Tuesday morning an officer, who made death notifications, stopped by our post to check on us. He said he had made seven death notifications over the last two days. He shared about making a death notification of an infant as one of the most difficult.
The officer said the dad was in his twenties and was holding onto his son with all the strength he could. Both of them were sucked out of the house and thrown through some trees and a fence. The dad was injured severely and dazed but was able to walk and find his infant son in the rubble, sadly there was nothing he could do save his son’s life.
On Wednesday morning we stopped at a convenience store in Oklahoma, about 30 minutes southwest of Joplin, to get a drink and use the restroom. The clerk asked us if we were helping in Joplin and we said yes. She said she had recently attended a funeral for her best friend’s son. She said he was an infant that had been sucked from his father’s arms and legs as they huddled in an interior hallway as a family. She shared the name of the infant as well as the father and it was the same family that the officer had made death notification on. I truly believe we stopped at this convenience store to talk with this clerk about how she was affected by the tornado.
This same officer shared two extraordinary survival stories from the Dillon’s Grocery Store. The manager of the store received the tornado warning and got all of the customers to the back of the store and into a cooler for shelter. Unfortunately, they did not know there was a young woman who was eight months pregnant in the store and she was left out of the shelter to face the tornado alone.
As the tornado cleared the west side of town and continued east, it left extensive damage to the Dillon’s Grocery Store. The folks in the cooler climbed out to see complete devastation around them for as far as the eyes could see in all directions. As they were digging out of the cooler, they could hear a woman screaming for help from beneath the pile of rubble. They began to dig and uncover many levels of debris. Some estimated the debris to be 4’ deep.
They found a pregnant woman on her hands and knees beneath the rubble. This woman held up 4’ feet of store debris with only her back, hands and knees to keep from crushing her unborn child. Mother and baby are doing just fine! Absolutely amazing and a true testament to a mother’s love! I lost my mother on January 31, 2011 and there was never a day that went by that I did not know she loved me!
At the same time, an elderly couple, in their 60’s or 70’s, was headed to the grocery store to shop. They made it to the Dillon’s parking lot and attempted to get to the inside of the store, but it was too late, the tornado was already upon them. They got back to their car but were unable to open the door due to the strength of the wind. They held each other in their arms and knelt beside their car in the parking lot as this was the only thing they could do.
The tornado was there and gone in less than 60 seconds. The elderly couple opened their eyes and saw their car, as well as many others, was gone and nowhere to be found. In addition, they could see the devastation in every direction they looked, all the way to the horizon. They had some minor bumps, abrasions and laceration but they are doing well for experiencing an EF-5 tornado.
An area sheriff’s deputy responded to the scene shortly after the tornado struck. He could only get to 20th and Duquesne before the debris field was too much to drive through. While he was making his way up 20th towards Duquesne he was stopped by a Mercy/St. Johns ER doctor. The doctor wanted a police escort to the hospital so he could help treat patients as they arrived. The deputy and doctor did not know the condition of Mercy/St. Johns at this time and set off westbound on 20th Street.
The deputy told us once they got to 20th and Duquesne there were 40 to 50 people coming toward them for help. Several of the injured had devastating, life ending traumatic injuries. The injuries are too graphic for me to even put them into words or even vision what the scene looked like. They had also learned, by this time, that Mercy/St. Johns took a direct hit and was being evacuated due to the risk of fire/explosion and the instability of the structure. The entire building had been shifted off its foundation by four feet and has since been condemned!
The ER doctor told deputy to get him to the hospital anyway he could because he wanted to be able to treat the people he could save. The deputy made a decision to commandeer several pick-up trucks and had the owners drive the injured to the hospital in Carthage. Joplin has two hospitals, Mercy/St. Johns and Freeman and both of them were overloaded from a surge of wounded and dying.
The deputy said they recovered bodies from various areas of town. They respectfully handled the bodies but had no supplies to cover them up and were forced to leave them on the side of the streets for several hours. He indicated this was one of many difficult things he had to after the tornado.
The deputy was able to get the doctor to Mercy/St. Johns and immediately left to go back to the hardest hit areas to search for survivors buried in the rubble. As he searched residence after residence he could smell the odorant in the propane or natural gas. He said they were in several houses searching when a house would explode very nearby as the gas come into contact with an ignition source. However, knowing the danger and he could easily lose his life he carried on with his mission. Fortunately, no citizens or first responders severely injured during the rescue effort.
Another officer stopped and shared his story. He spoke of a church that was in service Sunday evening and they had received no warning. Even though the NWS in Springfield had tornado warned the Supercell 24 minutes before the first damage reports began to filter in from Joplin. The officer spoke about a husband, his wife and their eight year old daughter who were attending Sunday evening services. The wife was sitting in between her husband and daughter. The tornado struck and caused extensive damage to the sanctuary area. It also took the life of the husband and daughter and left her with lacerations, bumps, abrasions and bruises. He said the first responders arrived to get the family members out of the church. The wife asked to stay there a little longer so she could hold them one last time. I cannot even imagine what this was like for this lady.
One officer spoke of a door to door search in of the hardest hit areas where he found a man sheltered in an upstairs closet of an apartment building. The closet was the only part of the structure still standing as the entire second floor had been ripped off and slung several blocks away. Once the male had been extricated from the closet he noticed his work bag on the floor in his apartment. He said the bag was in the same spot it was before the tornado struck but all of the ratchet straps that were in it were gone. This is an example the strange things that wind does to people and property.
On Tuesday a man pulled into the convenience store parking lot and began looking at a dark colored car. He appeared to be struggling with what he was looking at and was confused on what he needed to do. He made contact with me and began talking about his story of the tornado. He said his daughter had just graduated from High School at MSSU. He explained it was storming out when they left MSSU and his daughter was driving. He said the rain picked up and his daughter asked him to drive. He said he turned right onto 20th and saw the tornado. He said his eyes and brain were not on the same page. He pulled into the parking lot across from the convenience store located on the southwest corner of 20th and Duquesne. He told us they rode the tornado out in their car. He said it tossed them around like a rag doll. He was grateful to still have his wife and daughter and has strong emotions about the people who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.
I saw a lot of friends from across the State of Missouri that were in Joplin helping in one way or another. Many of us said that disasters and funerals bring us all together, as we do not have time in our busy lives to get together on a routine basis. In a way this is very sad as life is too short and there are no guarantees of tomorrow.
Cameron Regional Medical Center sent a team of nurses to work in the Freeman ER from Sunday through Wednesday night. Freeman sits very close to Mercy/St. Johns and only suffered from minor damage. We maintained contact with our CRMC friends and let them know what was going on in the disaster area. They worked the day shift (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) at Freeman and we worked the overnight shift (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.).
We are also saddened by the tragic Line Of Duty Death (LODD) of Riverside DPS Officer Jefferson (Jeff) Taylor. Jeff had responded along with other officers from Riverside to assist in the first 48 hours of the event. He had just dropped a fire commander off at the command post and returned to his post at 20th and Connecticut. Numerous thunderstorms were rolling through the area producing dangerous CG lightning with large hail and rotation. Jeff had just gotten back to his post when a bolt of lightning struck nearby and caused him to collapse.
First responders on scene provided Basic Life Support until an advanced life support team could arrive and transport him to the hospital. Unfortunately, Jeff had sustained life ending injuries and died at 9:25 a.m. this morning, June 3, 2011, in Springfield, MO. Jeff’s grandpa is the oldest serving firefighter on the Cameron Fire Department. Funeral services are pending at this hour; I will post the time and location as soon as I know the details.
We all learned lessons from the response and recovery that we can bring back to Cameron. We all pray something like this never happens to our community, but we thank the City of Joplin and all of the emergency responders we interacted with for sharing their lessons learned and what worked and what didn’t.
I am a changed and better person since I returned from Joplin, MO. The things I saw, the stories of survival and unfortunately the stories of death will forever be etched in my mind. God Bless the people of Joplin and all of the first responders who were there the first 24 to 36 hours after the tornado struck. I cannot even fathom what they lived through and are still living with today! ~ CS