Red Cross responds to tornado that struck Joplin five years ago

By Carl Manning
American Red Cross

Tornado warnings are nothing new to Joplin, Missouri, especially in the spring when funnel clouds frequently dip from the sky.

So it was on May 22, 2011. The tornado watches were announced, followed by the tornado warnings. Over the horizon came the EF5 tornado that cut a swath through the city of 50,000, destroying homes, businesses, schools, churches and hospitals and leaving hundreds dead, dying and injured.

Red Cross responding to Joplin tornado
A Joplin resident surveys the damage to her business after a tornado destroyed much of the city on May 22, 2011. American Red Cross volunteers like the ones in the vehicle provided assistance to those impacted by the EF5 tornado. (Photo by Carl Manning/American Red Cross.

The Joplin community is coming together this month to mark the fifth anniversary of the event. For information about the various anniversary activities, go to http://www.joplinproud.com/

It was a day that touched everyone. Those who weren’t directly affected knew someone who was in the close knit community. The tornado killed 161 people and injured an additional 1,000. Damage was estimated around $3 billion.

American Red Cross volunteers were among the first to help. The stories of the survivors were horrific and heart-breaking. The volunteers provided help, comfort and hope for many who at that moment saw no future.

The Red Cross operated two shelters that provided 3,450 overnight stays. It served some 86,000 meals and 373,000 snacks; distributed nearly 1,500 comfort kits with personal care items; and provided 205,000 relief items like tarps, ice chests and cleaning supplies.

Tornado damage in Joplin, Mo
This was the scene in Joplin after an EF5 tornado destroyed much of the city on May 22, 2011. Neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. In the distance is what was left of the high school. (Photo by Carl Manning/American Red Cross)

Red Cross disaster assessment teams spread out to determine the extent of damage. Neighborhoods were rows of concrete slabs where houses once stood and families lived.

Street signs and familiar landmarks were gone and people walked the streets in disbelief. What had been their way of life now was gone and the unfamiliar now was the familiar.

Of the nearly 4,500 homes surveyed by the Red Cross assessment teams, nearly three-fourths were destroyed. Their locations were charted on maps shared with emergency officials and other relief agencies.

As days became weeks, Red Cross caseworkers continued assisting with immediate and long-term recovery needs. Mental health and spiritual care counselors reached out to help the community begin the healing process.

The Red Cross opened 1,766 cases to address such issues as housing including building materials and temporary rent assistance;  transportation needs such as helping repair or replace damaged and destroyed vehicles; replacement of medical items such as eyeglasses and wheelchairs; and distribution of  household items including appliances, furniture and cleaning supplies.

The Red Cross presence continued beyond the initial recovery as it worked with the community and partner agencies to help people prepare for the next disaster, whether that would be another tornado or a home fire.

For instance, one priority for city leaders was for every family in Joplin to have a weather radio. The Red Cross provided the first $50,000 to purchase radios and the rest of the funding came from the Joplin Tornado Fund set up by the city.

The Red Cross also started providing free smoke alarms in homes as part of its national Home Fire Campaign which seeks to reduce home fire deaths and injuries by 25 percent by 2019.

It also launched its Pillowcase Project to educate students in the third through fifth grades about dealing with the dangers of disasters. Students receive a pillowcase to decorate and then are taught how to use it for storing their emergency supplies.

As in other communities, the Red Cross chapter in Joplin always is looking for volunteers to help. For more information about becoming a Red Cross volunteer, go to redcross.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

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