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Grinding it out

PDA teams with government, private agencies on Joplin tornado recovery

August 3, 2011

A woman stands on an empty lot, where her home once stood.

Diedra Michel on the site where her home once stood. —Photos by Jerry Van Marter

JOPLIN, Mo.

 This tornado was what weather and disaster experts call “a grinder.”

For 45 horrifying minutes on the afternoon of May 22 the category five twister ― actually a number of smaller tornados that coalesced into one monster storm ― churned through a “strike zone”  three-quarters of a mile wide and eight miles long in this city of 50,000.

The tornado obliterated everything in its path. More than 160 persons died. Nearly 1,000 were injured. Eighteen thousand cars were destroyed. Over 1,100 family pets were left wandering around the devastated landscape a month after the storm.

The tornado wiped out fully one-third of the city and 40 percent of its housing. Five schools were destroyed, including Joplin’s only high school. The largest and only non-profit hospital in town, St. John’s Memorial-Mercy, was moved almost half-a-foot off its massive foundation.

Diedra Michel, a member of Bethany Presbyterian Church here, was caught in the middle of the storm. “I hid in my little bathroom, praying that God would spare me,” she says. “When I finally walked out and saw the destruction and realized that many had died, I burst into tears.”

Michel tears up again as she stands on the empty concrete slab where her house once stood, mourning the loss of a neighbor boy who died on the way home from his high school commencement. His body was found in a nearby pond, still clad in his graduation robe.

“I get angry when I hear the words “God isn’t through with me yet,’” Michel says, “because surely God wasn’t through with him yet.”

Within hours of the storm, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) was on the ground in Joplin, beginning to help survivors and rescue workers sift through the rubble of their homes, community and lives.

A dozen members of PDA’s National Response Team (NRT), led by the Rev. Bill Branch, retired executive of Arkansas Presbytery now living in Little Rock, have spent considerable time in Joplin, bringing PDA’s renowned disaster response expertise to bear in collaboration with government and other private agencies.

Gradye Parsons sitting at a table with a group of men.

Gary Nelson (center) describes life in Joplin after the May 22 tornado as PDA’s John Robinson (left) and General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons (right) listen.

From July 27 to 29, a delegation of PC(USA) leaders ― General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministries Director Sara Lisherness and PDA’s associate for U.S. disaster response, John Robinson ― joined Branch and NRT member Harvey Howell from Houston to visit church, community and government leaders who are spearheading the recovery.

The PDA response team has met with the sessions and staffs of both Presbyterian churches in Joplin and with virtually every government and private agency working on relief and recovery in the city.

“Our niches,” says Branch, “are to help those least able to help themselves, to provide organizational and volunteer-hosting expertise and to help individuals, care-givers and communities with long-term spiritual and emotional care.”

Presbyterians and Lutherans together

Front view of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Joplin, Mo.

Bethany Presbyterian Church, damaged but not destroyed, is now temporary home to Peace Lutheran Church, which was demolished by the tornado.

The delegation’s visit began at Bethany Presbyterian Church, which sits on the edge of the strike zone and survived, though not unscathed. No one in Joplin survived unscathed.

“There was no phone service, of course, so it was terribly difficult to find out what was happening,” says the Rev. Rodney Peters, who has been stated supply pastor at the 107-member congregation for seven years. The homes of half of Bethany’s families were damaged or destroyed. Two families suffered deaths.

Only four rooms of the church were not damaged by the tornado. Twenty-five windows and all the carpeting and paneling throughout the church had to be replaced. Securing the building against further damage in the immediate aftermath of the tornado was the church’s primary concern.

“Before the day was out, three strangers showed up from Tulsa (100 miles away) and said they wanted to help,” Peters says. “The next morning there were 35-40 people on our property cleaning up. They stayed for a week. It was amazing. We didn’t have some of the agony other churches had.”

A woman stands on an empty lot where her church used to stand.

Sarah Jo Radcliffe stands on the spot where her office used to be at Peace Lutheran Church.

Like Peace Lutheran Church, a congregation that has collaborated with Bethany Presbyterian on a number of programs.

“All that’s left of our church is the slab,” says Sarah Jo Radcliffe, Peace Church’s parish administrator. Though her house survived, Radcliffe says “we drove in [to the church] not knowing what we’d find ― the brick pillars was all. All we could find was a water- and fire-proof storage cabinet and, unbelievably, our communion ware. It’s dented and dinged but we’re using it ― pretty symbolic, don’t you think?”

Peace members also found a neighbor woman lying in the rubble of her house. “The first thing we noticed was the smell of gas, so we frantically searched for something to turn it off with,” Radcliffe says. “And there, lying out in the open in the middle of the driveway next door, was a shiny crescent wrench.” The gas was turned off and the woman pulled from her rubble.

When the owner of the house where the wrench was found returned, he told Radcliffe that the wrench wasn’t his. “It just blew in from somewhere else,” Radcliffe says, amazed. “Like God delivered it to those who needed it.”

Peace members worshiped in their parking lot the Sunday after the storm and since then have been worshiping at Bethany Presbyterian. “The two churches have had a cooperative relationship for many years so there was no question where we were going to go,” Radcliffe says.

Several people sitting in chairs and talking.

Pastor Rodney Peters (center) with members of Bethany and Peace Churches.

“We realize that we have a blank canvas to recreate our church,” says Peace Lutheran member Gary Nelson, whose house survived. (That’s how it is in Joplin, people introduce themselves by saying whether their house survived the tornado or not). “We’re already doing research on what our church should look like to be of service to the community in the future.”

Peters says Bethany is doing the same thing. “It’s going to be a whole new neighborhood so we need to totally rethink what we’re going to do. It’s a great opportunity for us,” he says, and my dream is that our two congregations will really mesh.”

Presbyterians across town

Across town, near the city center, First Presbyterian Church is undamaged but certainly not unaffected. It has become a hub for a variety of community groups that are active in recovery efforts in Joplin.

“We continue to move forward,” says Wendy Douglas of Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD), “but it seems as if every time you remove a pile of debris, there’s another pile behind it.”

Joplin is in an area of the Midwest known as “tornado alley,” so COAD has experience with recovery efforts, but nothing like this.

“We have a multi-agency group that meets every Thursday,” says COAD treasurer and First Presbyterian Church member Lisa Knutzen. Long-term recovery ― a specialty of PDA ― is also COAD’s focus. The group is in steady conversation with PDA about how to coordinate multiple agencies and “train the trainers” so there will be a long-term coterie of recovery workers on the scene here.

State and federal officials estimate it will take at least eight years to fully recover from this tornado. “With that much to do,” Knutzen says, “it’s doubly important that we coordinate so there’s no competition. PDA is so great about making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Lisa Albertson, whose home and business ― a child-care center ―were destroyed, has found employment with “Rebuild Joplin,” a website that matches needs with resources. “From counseling to housing, there’s so much to do and so many people who want to help,” she says. “It’s great to see from the inside how the community is pulling together. This has been a horrible experience that’s also filled with blessings. First Presbyterian and the other churches keep reminding us of that.”

With volunteers continuing to pour into Joplin to help with the recovery effort, First Presbyterian Church has turned an office building it owns across the street into a hostel for visiting workers.

During the PC(USA) delegation’s visit, a large group from First Presbyterian Church in Oceanside, Calif., in San Diego Presbytery was camped out in the hostel and eating their meals in the spacious fellowship hall of the Joplin church. The Oceanside group has a special attachment here ― First Church’s new pastor Dave Burgess just moved to Joplin from southern California.

The City of Joplin

A couple of men sitting at a table.

Joplin officials Keith Stammer (left), emergency management director, and Sam Anselm, assistant city manager, explain the city’s recovery and rebuilding efforts in the wake of the May 22 tornado.

“Whatever manuals are written, you throw them out the window and rely on the people you’ve got and go forward,” says Sam Anselm, Joplin’s assistant city manager. “We’re very fortunate that we had the right people in place,” adds Anselm, who only came to Joplin on April 4 from St. Louis, “and that we’ve got partners like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance who really know what they’re doing.”

The city’s first priority was to clear enough roads in the strike zone that search and rescue units could get into the devastated area. “We had enough roads cleared in 18 hours,” Anselm says.

Then came the daunting task of debris removal. “Right now we’re estimating 2.5 million cubic yards of debris ― enough to cover 65 football fields 10 feet deep,” Anselm says, “and that’s before we start the demolition of structures that are still standing.”

Those Presbyterian volunteers staying at First Presbyterian Church are part of a corps of 60,000 volunteers who have logged 337,000 hours of service so far, and that’s just those volunteer groups that have registered with the city, Anselm says.

“I can’t say enough about faith-based groups,” says Keith Stammer, Joplin’s emergency management director. “All four of our distribution centers are in churches. PDA and the other groups all talk to each other and cooperate and pay attention to ‘the least of these.’ I don’t know what we’d do without faith-based organizations … well, I do, but I don’t want to think about it.”

FEMA― “We work in dog years”

A hospital damaged by a disaster.

St. John’s Memorial-Mercy Hospital, Joplin’s largest and the only non-profit hospital in the area, was moved 6 inches on its foundation by the tornado and will have to be demolished and rebuilt.

In sharp contrast to its much-criticized performance in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seems completely on top of its game in Joplin. It is ahead of schedule to complete the debris clean-up by the second week of August.

“It’s been a very successful volunteer effort,” says FEMA’s local director, Jim Donley, “and PDA has been huge. My gut instinct is that the total cost to rebuild Joplin will be $1 billion and will take eight to ten years. As big as this is, we kind of work in dog years.”

FEMA’s efforts are organized into three task forces ― debris clean-up, St. John’s-Mercy hospital, and Joplin’s schools.

The parking lot across the street from the hospital looks like the set from M*A*S*H. Tents, Quonset huts and trailers comprise a mobile hospital that looks to be very efficient and will have to suffice for now ― FEMA has just awarded a contract to construct a number of modular units that will be more substantial than the tents. Those units will be in service for the next three to five years while a new hospital is built.

An estimated 2,000 additional houses that are still standing but condemned will have to be torn down, Donley says, adding that about 500 will be eligible for FEMA assistance because they are underinsured or the owners are low-income.

About 4,000 family units ― houses and apartments ― were destroyed by the tornado. Fifteen percent of those residents need long-term FEMA assistance, so the agency is in the process of building mobile home parks that will house more than 500 families.

“Our top priority,” says Donley, “ is to have all school-aged children housed by the start of school (Aug. 17) and all others by mid-September.

The impending start of school is a crucial deadline for FEMA. Nine schools were either destroyed or so damaged they are unusable. FEMA is using a variety of tactics to provide enough space for all of Joplin’s students.

Temporary modular classrooms have been set up on some school grounds or nearby sites. Temporary repairs have been made to “mothballed” school buildings to make them usable. And a 100,000-square-foot “big box” store that closed last year has been fixed up to house the city’s high school juniors and seniors.

“The internal furnishings are under way well,” Donley said. “School will open for everyone.”

“It’s going to take more from my church”

The Rev. Jim Woodworth retired from pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to go to work for FEMA as a Volunteer Agency Liaison. His job, in a nutshell, is to do pastoral counseling on behalf of FEMA.

His pastor’s heart shines brightly as the Des Moines, Iowa, resident tells of his post-tornado work.

Sara Lisherness in a church kitchen with other volunteers.

Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministries Director Sara Lisherness (left), Pastor Dave Burgess (center) of First Presbyterian Church and Gradye Parsons check out the kitchen of First Church’s hostel, which houses volunteers in Joplin.

“The imam at the local mosque mobilized volunteers from the small Muslim community here,” Woodworth says, “and invited me to come speak at the mosque. Talking to him I learned that his house was destroyed and he and his young family were having a tough time. He hadn’t applied to FEMA for assistance because his green card had been lost in the tornado and he was afraid of being deported.”

Woodworth said he tried to persuade the young imam to apply for help ― “if not for yourself, then for your family,” he told him. Woodworth left the mosque discouraged, but at a FEMA-sponsored reception for local volunteers the next day, “the imam told me he’d registered and begun receiving assistance for his family,” Woodward says. “It was a transforming moment for this crusty old Presbyterian.”

On another occasion, Woodworth was invited by a FEMA disability specialist to travel to Salina, Kan., to visit a blind 82-year-old man who cared for his invalid wife. “His name was Truman and he and his wife lived in an abandoned storefront that a friend told him was the best available place for them.”

Though the conditions in the dwelling were “deplorable,” Woodworth says, the man’s wife was clean and neat. “Truman was afraid to take his wife to a shelter and wanted to go back to Joplin but was too proud to ask for FEMA assistance. I finally persuaded him and on the trip back I asked him how they had survived the tornado.

“He told me he covered her body with his, covered her head with his hands and just held on.”

Eyes welling with tears, Woodworth says, “It’s people like these that keep me going, even though they’ve been torn apart. I want my Presbyterian Church to know that these are good people and deserve our support and we must give it to them. We can rebuild, but it’s going to take more from my church.”

To date, PDA has received just over $200,000 for Joplin tornado relief. For information on how to contribute money or volunteer work to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, please go to their website.

  1. I was an exchange teacher in Indiana in 1976 and have very happy memories of Jim and Barbara Woodworth. I'd love to be in contact with them after all these years.

    by Doreen Elder(formerly Morrison)

    September 8, 2013

  2. I know PDA does good work but trying to put together info for a circle meeting and unable to find exactly how you determine what you are going to do in a community stricken with disaster. What steps do you take? What is PDAs main concern? Thank you

    by Donna Parish

    March 4, 2012

  3. A great story of commpassionate love and service at work. Thanks so much for spreading the word about the great contribution of PDA in places where the need is the greatest

    by Doug Slagle

    August 9, 2011

  4. Jerry, Very good job. Thanks for such a great article. Todd and Kathy

    by Todd Morriss

    August 3, 2011

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