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Hundreds of volunteers descend on Joplin, Missouri

As government workers concentrate on search and rescue, people from all over the country arrive to help with the cleanup.

May 26, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • Volunteers pack donated items into bags for tornado victims in Joplin, Missouri. Rescue and recovery teams scoured the wreckage of the small Midwestern city, which was devastated by a high-velocity whirl of wind that destroyed about 2,000 buildings.
Volunteers pack donated items into bags for tornado victims in Joplin,… (Eric Thayer / Reuters )

Reporting from Joplin, Mo. — Brian Wing was home in Houston on Monday morning, watching footage from this tornado-shredded town, when he saw something that shocked him — the reporter for the Weather Channel teared up.

"He sees this stuff a lot," Wing recalled reasoning, "and when he broke down, I knew it was a big deal."

The next day, Wing arrived in Joplin just ahead of a new storm system. He took refuge in the basement of a Red Cross shelter when tornado sirens sounded, and slept in his rental van, windows rolled down so any additional alerts would wake him. Then he rose at dawn and joined an army of volunteers who have made startling progress at getting this battered city back on its feet.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin

The official government effort is geared toward search and rescue, not cleaning up, and the tornado's six-mile path is still a lingering maze of twisted trees, crumpled cars and piles of rubble. On Thursday, authorities continued to sort through the debris, looking for either more corpses — 125 have been found — or, hoping against hope, for survivors. State officials say that 232 people are missing.

But many of the streets have been cleared of the inches-deep coat of glass and debris that coated them just two days ago. Giant tree limbs have been cleared from many yards. And the disaster zone is now populated not only by dazed victims, but by roving support groups of cheery students, churchgoers and freelance do-gooders handing out hot food and cold drinks.

People from all over the country have donated time and equipment — including local construction companies using trucks to haul away tree carcasses, and a pair of Nigerian tourists who left New York for Joplin after seeing footage of the storm. The city counted more than 600 volunteers who helped Wednesday, and more people were arriving Thursday, as they have every day since the storm struck

In an age of continuous live television coverage, disasters typically draw a crowd of people wanting to pitch in. Even by that standard, though, Joplin seems different — possibly due to its geography. People who want to help simply find it easy to do so.

The city of about 50,000 sits smack in the middle of the country, flanked by an interstate highway and close to the intersection of four states. Its workday population normally quintuples, as people commute from the surrounding countryside. These commuters have become, in effect, a large population of neighbors – who often have heavy equipment, chainsaws and trucks — close by and eager to help out.

Even some whose houses blew away want to pitch in.

Kinsley Matthews, 16, showed up Thursday morning at the volunteer center on the campus of Missouri Southern State University, hoping to find some way to help. The house where she was living was destroyed in the storm.

"Just because we don't have anything," she said, "doesn't mean we should be depressed. We've just got to do something."

On Thursday morning, hundreds of people converged on the volunteer center, itself a patchwork effort of the national service group AmeriCorps, the Red Cross and individuals just helping out. New arrivals swapped intelligence on how to secure a spot on the school buses that would take them into the disaster zone.

Danny Cheatham drove up the day before from southern Arkansas, his blue pickup loaded with chainsaws, gas canisters and work tools. He'd been too late to get on a bus Wednesday afternoon, and was hoping he could be useful.

"I can run a chainsaw, search and rescue — whatever they need me to do," said the retired oil worker. "I'm 62 but I ain't dead. I can still work."

Kevin Montgomery, 52, and his stepson Dalton Morrison, 19, drove three hours from Sedalia, Mo., on Wednesday afternoon. As they neared Joplin they heard alarming news on the radio — a tornado had torn through their own town.

They turned around and drove toward Sedalia until they were able to reach family on the phone and find out that, though there was extensive damage in the area, there were no casualties. So they turned around again and headed to Joplin.

"We figured Joplin needed the help more," Morrison said. On Thursday, the Sedalia residents joined Wing and about 10 other volunteers and their team leader, an AmeriCorps employee. They rode to the southern edge of the damaged area and walked a couple of blocks to a row of houses that were relatively lightly touched by the tornado.

Still, the backyards were a tangle of downed trees. A huge piece of sheet metal was wrapped around the crown of the one tree still standing.

Those who had brought chain saws began slicing the downed trees into manageable chunks. The empty-handed, like Wing, grabbed the pieces of timber and hauled them to a debris pile several hundred yards away.

As he steadily cleared trees, Wing, a technology salesman, recounted how he told his wife, Shannon, on Monday that he'd be going to Joplin. She thought he was kidding.

But Wing had been troubled by his usual reaction to carnage seen on television. Such destruction often felt abstract to him.

"There are so many tragedies around the world that you see on a daily basis," he said. "You get desensitized. And I don't like that."

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin

Before Wing left the disaster area Wednesday evening, he walked a few blocks deeper in to take in the panorama of the greatest damage: a swath of flattened buildings as far as the eye could see. "That's the worst thing I've ever seen," he said Thursday.

He was planning to work through the day then catch the first flight back to Houston on Friday. His wife, three children, and everyday life were waiting.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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