Monday, June 13, 2011


My brother Andy Evertson has been an Omaha Firefighter since the early 1990’s. In addition to fighting fires, he is a paramedic. As a highly skilled emergency responder, he is on the roster of Omaha Rapid Response, an organization which sends volunteer emergency workers to disaster areas.
 Andy just returned home from Joplin, Mo., where Omaha Rapid Response spent three days assisting victims of the May 23 tornado. The following is his e-mail report to friends and family, edited only for print style.

Near St. John’s Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo., an American flag hangs where the May 23 tornado left it, in the shattered limbs of a tree, surrounded by destruction. Surrounded also by incredible human spirit. Click on the picture for a larger image.
I went to Joplin, Mo. this weekend with a local volunteer group, Omaha Rapid Response. I'm at a loss for words as to what to say about it. We stayed at a local church and were given names and addresses of people that needed help going through their houses for personal belongings before the bulldozers plowed everything under. Mere words cannot describe what we saw. This was 3 weeks after the actual tornado and there had been considerable cleanup. It was still almost incomprehensible to the human eye. I'm still having trouble trying to reconcile the damage. It is as troubling as anything I have ever seen.

Most people had been through their houses several times already and I got the sense most were ready to move on. The ones I spoke with were mostly upbeat and incredibly stoic. I did not detect a sense of resignation, but rather a feeling that they would not be defined by this single event. Many just wanted to talk, and to a person they were grateful to be alive and acknowledged the role that God must have played in their survival.

Very few of these houses have basements due to the high water table. Most of these folks were at home when it hit. I asked over and over where they went (for shelter). They went into hallways, small closets, bathrooms, and in some cases just clung to the ground. Their houses were removed from around them save the spaces where most of them hid. We ate at a diner where the waitress said she and her husband were sleeping in their second-floor apartment and did not realize what was happening until it was upon on them. She said they laid on the floor while everything around them disappeared and they watched their car fly by. She was from Bosnia and had lived in Joplin just over a year. She said she grew up in war and had never seen anything like this. Still, she said she loved Joplin, except for the weather.

St. John’s Mercy Hospital, Joplin, Mo. The large structure on the left is the now-condemned hospital building, which was actually twisted on it’s foundation. On the right, in the parking lot, is the functioning MASH-type tent hospital which is presently being used. Click on the picture for a larger image.
The infamous hospital shown so prominently on the news was apparently rotated several inches on its foundation. It has since been fenced off; pending demolition I suppose. In a parking lot across the street they have established a new "tent" hospital with surgical suites, a functioning emergency room, and 60-plus inpatient beds. Ironically, there is another hospital only blocks away which was unscathed by the storm.

Almost as remarkable are the parts of Joplin not hit that seem oblivious to what has happened. We arrived in town around 1 a.m. and I breathed a sigh of relief because the damage did not seem to be near as bad as I thought it would be. I figured the news reports had been greatly exaggerated. Then we came across the path of destruction and passed into a world of disbelief. The maddening randomness is as hard to comprehend as the damage itself.

To be sure, it destroyed everything in its path. It is a clichéd saying after any disaster, but the mind cannot comprehend how more – many more – people were not killed. I have spent a good portion of this morning looking at aerial photos of Joplin before the tornado to try and decipher what I actually saw there. My response to this point is a very strong desire to vomit.

At this point, I frankly don't know what to say, but feel I should say something. If there is something to take away I suppose it is the resiliency of the human spirit. Like the ant pile that has been kicked in, the people go about the business of reconstructing their lives, most of them grateful that things weren't worse. I went there to help and was afraid at times that they were going to have to take time out their efforts to comfort me. The response appears to have been overwhelming. We were going to go down much sooner but they were so inundated with volunteers that it was becoming problematic.

The relief efforts we dealt with were mostly church based and were run very very well. Apparently in the south, the disaster response of churches has become a cottage industry, particularly with the Baptists. The church we stayed in had 100 beds set up and had a constant stream of volunteers filing through. They fed everybody 3 times a day through donations and still managed to have a church service on Sunday. They carried a full inventory of donated supplies and had them stacked from floor to ceiling yet were organized enough to get the right stuff to the right folks. They had truckloads of bottled water and Gatorade. They had feeding stations throughout the area, many in structures damaged by the tornado. They had health clinics where volunteers could get tetanus shots due to all the nails and other hazards. Four-wheelers regularly came down every street with water, Gatorade, and even ice cream. This was a very impressive logistical endeavor.

The federal government would do well to take some lessons. I will say local first responders did an incredible job and the first FEMA folks also did a good job not only of searching for bodies but of marking the streets and addresses. All street signs were gone after the storm and neighborhoods were virtually unrecognizable. The MASH-type hospital set up in the parking lot was up and running within 24 hours.

I heard about the Joplin tornado on the radio. I didn’t give it a lot of thought, other than to think that, thankfully, loss of life was comparatively small, given the reported destructiveness of the storm. That was about it. I’m a busy fellow, and spend most of my waking hours concerned with and working on my own projects. I’m quite egocentric, to say the least. Which is why I’m thankful to people like my brother, who not only selflessly serve others, but who have the skill to share their keen observations and insight in verbal and written form. Thanks, Brother, for snapping me out of self for a few moments.

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