Commentary: Volunteers help clean up Joplin 2 handfuls at a time
On June 4, 335 volunteers from the Fort Leavenworth community travelled to Joplin, Mo., to contribute to the tornado relief effort there.

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (June 9, 2011) -- Do you remember what you were doing at 5:34 p.m. May 22? I honestly do not recall exactly where I was or what I was doing. However, the people of Joplin, Mo., will always remember where they were the moment the horrible and powerful EF5 tornado struck their town. I was about to witness just how devastating that day was for the people of Joplin.

Early, in fact very early (3:30 a.m. to be exact) on June 4, I had the opportunity to join 335 members of the Fort Leavenworth community and drive down to Joplin to contribute to the tornado relief effort there.

As we drove south on U.S. Highway 69 in the back of a non-air conditioned school bus, which I and a few of my fellow passengers believed had its shocks removed, I wondered what effect our volunteering would have on Joplin. Like many, I had seen the devastation on television and heard some of the firsthand accounts of survival. However, I have never been to a disaster area nor have I been through a tornado, so I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived there.

As an active-duty Soldier, I deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times and helped the people of those nations build, repair and improve their own communities, villages and towns. But I have never done anything like that in the United States. Going to Joplin was an opportunity to do exactly that -- help fellow American citizens rebuild their community and town.

Two hours into our bumpy and windy trip in the back of the school bus, we stopped at Fort Scott, Kan., and were treated to a free breakfast sponsored by the local Knights of Columbus (a Catholic men’s fraternity) and the local McDonald’s franchise. The generous people of Fort Scott served us breakfast and some much needed coffee before we got back on the road.

As we began to arrive in the city limits of Joplin, we started to see, well, nothing other than normal activity and nothing indicating that a devastating tornado had moved through the area less than two weeks earlier. At the Missouri Southern State University campus -- the headquarters for the relief effort -- our bus convoy was reconfigured and given previously identified volunteer missions inside the disaster zone. The relief effort leaders were excited to have such a large number of laborers who had their own transportation. I was the bus No.1 chalk leader -- a bus of 16 volunteers -- and given a road intersection to go to and link up with an Americorps representative.

We made our way from the university and eventually entered the disaster zone. Coming up on the devastation and seeing it with our own eyes is something that is very difficult to explain. The sheer devastation of stripped trees, crumbled homes and roads unmarked because road signs were ripped out of the ground stopped all conversations on the bus. Upon our arrival, we were directed to the actual work site and walked just under a mile to the site.

It was eerie to walk through the tornado’s path in the hot morning sun and marvel at the sheer power of nature. We saw messages to families and names of insurance companies spray-painted on houses. One message simply read “Kevin S. is alive.” I thought about what this message was saying. Friends and family were searching for a loved one and could not find him, and did not know if he was dead or alive. What would that be like?

At the work site -- the intersection of 25th Street and Porter -- we got to work pulling debris from residential yards and separating them into piles along the curb -- building material, metal, plastic, trees, etc. Most of the work was completed just two handfuls at a time. Sweat quickly poured from our faces as we carried large logs, sticks, house siding, and just about anything else used to construct a house to piles alongside the road.

One special part of the trip was to meet some of the tornado victims. Our particular group met three homeowners. Talking to them was especially challenging. What do you say to someone who just had their home obliterated? I helped one such couple carry the last of their belongings from their home to their pickup. The sadness in the older woman’s eyes spoke volumes of the sadness and loss that could not be expressed in words. However, even in their desperate situation, they were thankful that we came from so far away to help them and their neighbors.

One other gentleman we helped said he would usually sit on his porch and watch storms come through the area. This time he decided to go to the basement for some reason. It took him three hours to dig his way out after the storm. We helped clear debris from his yard, sometimes carrying entire wall frames, which were 20 or so feet from the house foundation, to the curbside. This work was sometimes backbreaking in the 98 degree heat -- and there is no shade because there are no longer any trees and the few houses and buildings still standing provided little, if any, shade. We were careful to arrange the debris piles near his house because a tow truck was coming later to retrieve what was left of his two cars.

Around 3 p.m., we had to end our work time in the disaster zone because our buses needed to return to Leavenworth. Covered in dirt, soaked in sweat and a little sunburned, we grabbed the tools and bags we brought and boarded the bus. Our route back to the university took us though the rest of the disaster zone. The sheer size of the area was immense. Flattened homes, tree trunks and destroyed cars were all that we could see. Seeing such a large devastated area reminded me of bombed city pictures in history books from World War II. Everyone, including me, was in such awe, we just watched with open mouths muttering “Oh my God.” Then we turned off the tornado’s main path. Suddenly the destruction stopped and everything looked like a normal Midwestern town.

We rallied with the other volunteers at the university, swapped a few stories, got some food from the volunteers there, and reboarded the buses. It was a long day, one that many volunteers repeat day after day, and one we will not soon forget.

As we sat in the back of the bus -- dirty, smelly, sweaty and just overall unpleasant to be around -- the hot late afternoon wind blew through the back of the bus. I thought about what effect we had in such a large devastated area with months and probably years of recovery effort ahead of it. The real answer is I don’t know. However, I do know that our small bus of 17 people helped clear five small lots in Joplin and that means we helped at least five families we may never know or see again. However, we helped them two handfuls at a time.

With so much work ahead of the city, I would encourage those who can to volunteer to help the people of Joplin. Maybe instead of taking that trip to the lake or visiting the city, use that one Saturday to go and help our fellow Americans in Joplin.

Editor’s note: Maj. David Rowland is a student in Intermediate Level Education class 2011-01 at the Command and General Staff College. He graduates June 10.

Page last updated Fri June 10th, 2011 at 00:00