As a girl growing up in Alabama, I thought I knew tornadoes. Drills in the school hallway were routine. Standard protocol at the sound of sirens was to grab a pillow before huddling in the hall bathroom at my family’s home. I have seen their devastating damage firsthand, but witnessing the aftermath of the destruction that swept through Joplin, Missouri, in late May was utterly unfamiliar.
Leveled neighborhoods as far as you could see were indescribable. Trees stripped of their familiar bark now had steel contortioned among their limbs like pipe cleaners. There was the occasional semblance of “what once was” among the destruction — kitchen tables still poised without kitchen walls, children’s toys strewn on debris-cluttered lawns, the nativity set salvaged from the vestry. These are the physical marks that comingle with the grief and mourning for the shared loss of the tornado’s death toll, the stories of miraculous survival, and the superhuman acts of rescue.
My title with Catholic Charities USA bears the words “disaster response.” So arriving in Joplin on Memorial Day weekend was in effect fulfilling the responsibilities of my job description. Yet, I quickly learned that “other duties as assigned” is liberally interpreted when you are on the ground in response mode. I was stationed at the Catholic Distribution Center operated by St. Peter’s Catholic Church and supported by Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri. The center came together in McCauley Catholic High School thanks to the generosity of donors, the free labor of caring volunteers, and the organization of the parish and local Catholic Charities.
In the midst of long days at the center and nights spent sleeping on a mattress in a house on the parish campus, I found myself carrying in-kind donations alongside legions of spontaneous volunteers. In its first week, the center provided service to more than 1,000 people and it continues to operate indefinitely.
One evening as I worked in client intake at the center, I found myself in the position to comfort a young woman who was grieving the loss of her father due to the tornado. Her emotional pain was matched by the physical as her foot was infected and swollen due to tornado-inflicted splinters. I was elated to see her return a few days later with reports of medical treatment based on the referrals we had given her. Surgery to remove the splinters is still in the future but her spirits were bolstered by the fact she was getting the support she needed to recover.
Her story joins others that made the long days of physical work seem easy. Upon delivery of a gift card to a young mother for baby items, she tearfully hugged me. A $50 gift card may not seem like much, but to someone who had lost utterly everything, this small gesture meant everything. For another couple, it was clearly the first time they had ever “asked” for help, but the unplanned expenses post-tornado had stretched their two paychecks too thin. They had a quiet gratitude and even offered to put their skills to use as volunteers as their own form of repayment. Another young man I assisted was interviewing for a job but the tornado had taken his wardrobe down to just a shirt gifted by a friend. As we strolled and collected from the used clothing area, his energy was contagious. Anything we could help him with elicited a genuine expression of excitement, reminding me how the human spirit can rise above the most difficult circumstances.
Most of my job functions are carried out at a desk as I work with Catholic Charities USA’s 165 member agencies, offering technical assistance and consulting for disaster preparedness and response. Being in Joplin was far from desk mode, and I quickly learned to do whatever it takes to make it work — whether “it” was logistics in the center or a busload of volunteers that arrived unannounced or support for a client in dire need sitting beside me. In much the same way, I witnessed people whose lives had just been literally torn apart doing whatever it takes to get by — neighbors comforting one another, strangers offering strangers rides, family members pitching tents in their front yards for other family members whose houses were destroyed.
In the initial days following the Joplin tornado, donations flowed in as Americans were moved to action by the images on television. Yet, long after Joplin disappears from the national news cycle the recovery of this community will continue. Less than two weeks after the tornado, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri had secured permanent office space in Joplin and, by doing so, let the community know its work would continue long after the initial wave of support had subsided. Across the country, Catholic Charities demonstrates that “staying power” is embedded in the network of services that people turn to whether in the everyday disaster of poverty or one that sends you into your storm cellar.
Meeting some of the people impacted in Joplin was extremely humbling and let me know how my work unfolds beyond our office walls and in people’s lives. I knew that I was not there on my own and was grateful to be the hands and feet of so many that pray for and support the work of Catholic Charities USA.