At 2:00 AM, on May 23rd, just eight hours after a deadly EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin, MO, the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team arrived in a community devastated by the latest in a string of natural disasters.
The team immediately got to work setting up a Missing Persons hotline in collaboration with the Missouri Southern State University IT Department and had it up and running by 6:00 AM the next morning, just 12 hours after the tornado struck Joplin. Throughout the recovery process, this hotline has been the hub for missing persons and is crucial to the work of law enforcement and emergency response crews.
While AmeriCorps teams often must wait until a disaster area is declared safe, the AmeriCorps St. Louis ERT was close and the need was great, so the first 11-person team headed to Joplin without knowing where they would stay, sleep, or work. An AmeriCorps NCCC team followed closely behind, and all together nearly 100 AmeriCorps members from six teams have coordinated more than 12,000 unaffiliated volunteers in more than 49,000 hours of service to the victims of the Joplin tornado.
It is this kind of courage and determination that defines the AmeriCorps program and the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Disaster Service’s Unit. While in the field at FEMA’s Regional Response Coordinating Center, CNCS Senior Advisor for Disaster Services, Kelly DeGraff, reported via text and cell. Even as the self-described “Northeastern gal” experienced her first-ever tornado by taking cover in the local FEMA bunker, she was committed to telling the story of volunteers on the ground.
AmeriCorps members and volunteers are doing tremendous work in an area struggling to recover and rebuild after being ripped apart by a powerful natural disaster. A few of them took a moment to reflect on how this experience has touched them:
- On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend our AmeriCorps Team managed over 3,500 volunteers to recover disaster victims’ personal belongings from the wreckage of their homes. Between myself and one other AmeriCorps member we oversaw over 150 people working on four properties. We had a great deal of responsibility because we had to ensure the safety of so many untrained volunteers working in an unstable and destroyed environment, as well as make sure that the volunteers were able to recover the homeowners treasured possessions. I remember one homeowner returning to what was once her home and being brought to tears by the sight of over 40 strangers helping her bring some order to her life and recovering the photographs and material things which make up so many of the memories of her life.
– Will M., AmeriCorps St. Louis
- Without AmeriCorps coordinating the volunteers to the Joplin tornado, the disaster response would be out of control and lack the organization necessary to execute an effective recovery.
-- James Woodworth, Voluntary Agency Liaison, FEMA
- During the Joplin relief effort, AmeriCorps has played a key role in connecting affected residents with the resources they need. Be it food, donations, or volunteer labor, AmeriCorps has worked long, hard hours to ensure the needs here in Joplin are being met. As a team leader in the field, I have led groups of volunteers -- upwards of 80 at a time – in clearing debris and fallen trees from affected properties. Without AmeriCorps leading and coordinating the efforts of these volunteers, residents would not have access to the organized volunteer workforce that many of them need to recover and rebuild following this disaster.
– Chris Matthews, AmeriCorps NCCC
- AmeriCorps members have such an impact in these broken communities. With our boots on the ground, we have gone door to door shaking hands and helping storm victims in any way possible. As we searched through the wreckage, Eric found a Purple Heart. With the help of neighbors, we were able to return the medal to the homeowner, who was extremely thankful.
- Matthew McKenney, Minnesota Conservation Corps
- An AmeriCorps member leading a group of volunteers found a homeowner’s pet dog that had been buried under rubble from the Joplin tornado for a week. They then were able to track down the dog’s owner who had, unfortunately, lost his home and family in the tornado. Needless to say, the man was overjoyed by the discovery.
–Mark Wilson, AmeriCorps, Iowa Conservation Corps
Learn more by visiting the CNCS Disaster Services page or read about some of the recent recovery and response work our AmeriCorps and RSVP members have been a part of.