Leaders in Joplin Report on Tornado Response
Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events
On Thursday, May 26, 2011, Church News and Events spoke with Church leaders in the Joplin, Missouri, USA, area following the tornados on Sunday and Tuesday, May 22 and 24, 2011. The following information comes from Elder Jonathan Roberts, Area Seventy; Matthew G. Montague, first counselor in the Joplin Missouri Stake presidency; Ray Jones, second counselor in the stake presidency; Dave Richins, bishop of the Joplin Second Ward; and Chris Hoffman, bishop of the Joplin First Ward.
After Sunday’s F5 tornado leveled parts of Joplin, Dave Richins, bishop of the Joplin Second Ward, walked down the street toward the meetinghouse. His home was missing some shingles, and some trees had been shorn off at the top. Houses on the next block were missing all their shingles. At the next block, roofs had been torn off. Four blocks from his house, not a building was standing.
“There are piles of rubble where there used to be homes,” he said on Thursday. The Joplin stake center was one of the buildings destroyed.
Other words used to describe the scene were “war zone,” “heart-wrenching,” and “surreal.”
Church leaders in Joplin responded quickly following Sunday’s disaster. By Sunday night, all missionaries had been accounted for. Shortly thereafter, all members were reported safe, although a few members were hospitalized with injuries.
As of Friday, the death toll in Joplin stood at 125 with another 200 people missing. The latest deaths have brought the number of fatalities from the nation’s deadliest tornado season in 50 years to more than 500.
With the stake center gone, Bishop Richins’ home has been converted into a command center for the time being because of its central location. President Matthew Montague of the Joplin stake presidency said members were eager to get organized and begin recovery work.
Currently, Church leaders are in the assessment stage, learning the needs of people in the area—members and nonmembers—and documenting work orders.
Bishop Richins said he has been humbled to see members arriving at affected homes to take an assessment, but bringing shovels and rakes instead of pens and paper because they are so eager to help. In his ward alone approximately 15 homes were destroyed, and more than 80 percent sustained damage of some sort.
“Members have been very quick to tell us how everyone else is doing, but hesitant to talk about their own problems,” Bishop Richins said. “It’s been splendid behavior through this terrible crisis.”
Many whose homes are gone or significantly damaged have remained in or near the area, staying with friends and family.
Joplin stake president Creed Jones lost his home in Sunday’s tornado. He shared his story on CNN.
In Bishop Chris Hoffman’s ward—the Joplin First Ward—there has also been an outpouring of assistance and love, especially for the 11 families that are now homeless.
Those in the area with homes that are damaged but are still dry are hosting other, less fortunate ward members, and surrounding Church units have helped provide transportation and food.
One missionary apartment is now a six-foot pile of bricks where a two-story building used to stand. The elders were visiting a member when the tornado struck. These missionaries, along with the others in the area, are now coming in full force to help with relief efforts.
“Members have acted quickly on a very personal, compassionate level,” President Montague said. “Everyone is sheltered and fed, and their needs are being met.”
On a broader scale, Elder Jonathan Roberts, an Area Seventy, and stake leaders are organizing a massive volunteer effort that is planned to continue each weekend over the next two months. Members of neighboring stakes will travel to Joplin to assist with cleanup.
A truckload of supplies from Church headquarters arrived Friday to support the cleanup efforts.
Locally, Church leaders are connecting with disaster relief experts, relief agencies, and others in the community.
The most hard-hit areas will require heavy equipment, but for now volunteers are doing what they can—chain sawing branches, clearing trees, putting tarps on buildings, and boarding up homes—in the areas they have access to.
The National Guard is monitoring access to much of the city to prevent sightseeing and looting.
“We have to be a little creative in how we get to people’s homes,” President Montague said. “We have to be patient, but they’ve always let us in at some point.”
Those in the area are working together as best they can. It’s helping, smiles, and cooperation, Bishop Richins said.
Bishop Richins told of a neighbor who was brought to tears when two young men brought her an assessment. When she saw Christ’s name on their shirts, she said she felt an immediate peace.
A national relief organization in the area has offered to add several hundred volunteers to the Church’s cleanup and relief efforts.
“We are being sensitive to the particular needs of the community,” Bishop Hoffman said. “We have the infrastructure in place, we have the manpower, and we have the faith.”