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'It's all rubble': Joplin's devastation amazes even seasoned volunteers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2011 - Trey Perry spent the last few years with recovery efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He worked in Sri Lanka after the tsunami there, in Kosovo with the war, and more recently in Bridgeton and Maryland Heights after the damaging April tornados.

Now, he's in Joplin.

"I've never seen anything like this. It just looks like someone dropped an atomic bomb."

Perry, with Service International, arrived in Joplin on Monday with a small team to assess how best the Chesterfield-based nonprofit could help. Driving through Joplin, he sees water spraying in the air, smells wafts of natural gas where there are leaks, and is surrounded by so much destruction -- the high school, a Home Depot, St. John's Hospital, restaurant after restaurant after restaurant.

"They're all gone now. It's all rubble."

Perry says for now, Service International is helping to coordinate volunteers to go into neighborhoods and help people who haven't lost everything by pulling up trees and rubble. They're also heading to homes that have been mostly torn down with tractors to finish the job.

"Economically and emotionally, and then the physical destruction is just intense," he says.

On Wednesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill spoke on the Senate floor about what she saw in Joplin. She said about 100 St. Louis area firefighters arrived there Tuesday.

"I am so proud of the police and firefighters that I encountered," she said. "There were search and rescue teams from every corner of our state. Task Force One was there from Central Missouri. Almost 100 Kansas City firefighters were there ... At 3 o'clock [Tuesday] morning, a caravan from St. Louis drove 100 firefighters and all of their equipment and assets. They rolled down I-44 to get to Joplin to help their brothers and sisters."

Included is a team of fire fighters from Maryland Heights, which was hit by the April 22 tornado.

Capt. Mark Stratman says he hears from the seven or eight fire fighters only about once a day, but their average experience is about 20 years, and they're able to compartmentalize what they're seeing and what they've been through in their own community to get the job done.

"That's all you can do," he says.

U.S Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also spend much of Tuesday in Joplin. He said in a statement:

"I live about 60 miles from Joplin and have been here hundreds of times. This was a huge path of destruction in one of Missouri's major cities, and I've never seen anything like it. I applaud the federal and local officials for their recovery efforts, and I thank the volunteers who are generously dedicating their time and resources to help the people of Joplin."

Blunt said he'd be working at the federal level to make sure Joplin had all the resources needed to recover. "Southwest Missourians are resilient; this community will lean on one another for help and will rebuild."

Many other St. Louis-based agencies also have small teams of people in Joplin as part of those efforts.

The Humane Society of Missouri has about 15 people there working to find lost pets and get them to a temporary shelter set up at Southern Missouri State University.

Travis Williamson, a St. Louis-based Americorps volunteer, says about 50 Americorps volunteers are in Joplin, with about 28 from the St. Louis emergency response team. Williamson, who is answering phone calls from prospective volunteers at the United Way, says he got a text from a fellow volunteer who is in Joplin.

"He said it's crazy."

There's also a team of doctors from Barnes Jewish Hospital.

As the St. Louis region braced for more storms on Wednesday, non-profit organizations around the area were bracing for volunteers.

According to Carrie Zukoski with the United Way, 7,000 people have signed up to volunteer with the St. Louis chapter alone. "So many people want to do something," she says. "So many people want to help."

But for now, those people are on hold as first responders continue with search and rescue efforts, which have been slowed because of continued storms and tornado warnings.

And with the weather predicted to improve over the holiday weekend, many volunteer organizations fear that well-meaning people will drive down to Joplin to try and help.

"People want to help, and we need that," says John Fougere, who is working with the Missouri state emergency management system, "the inclination is to go straight to Joplin."

They should not, he says.

Instead, people in Missouri should call the United Way's volunteer number at 211, and people out of state should call 1-800-427-4626. Working through those channels makes it easier for the volunteers to help and easier for the agencies receiving them to put them to the best use.

Fougere adds that skilled doctors, nurses and other medical professionals should register online at www.showmeresponse.org.

"It's a fine line," he says. "We want people to help, obviously it's needed, but we want them to go through these channels."

Perry, who planned on staying in Joplin for at least a month, agrees.

"It's just mayhem. It's just chaos," he says. "So if people run to help, it's going to add to the chaos and it's not going to help the situation."

Kristen Hare