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Monday, May 2, 2016

Bi-county personnel join tornado response

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The tornado that hit Joplin was upgraded to an EF-5 yesterday as the death toll climbed to at least 122, making it one of the deadliest tornados in state history. Search and rescue efforts continue today with many emergency workers from the bi-county area assisting. [Times Photo by Ryan Schlichtman] [Order this photo]
People across the Ozarks woke up Monday morning to what is becoming a familiar sight across the midwest -- the massive devastation of their homes, businesses and communities.

Sunday evening brought severe thunderstorms and killing tornadoes to Joplin, and within hours, emergency crews from the bi-county area were part of the response effort.

Through emergency management, Monett Utilities Superintendent Pete Rauch learned the Joplin response effort needed generators. Rauch sent a portable 250 kilowatt generator seemed to be best used to run the CT scan for St. John's Hospital operating at Memorial Hall.

"I told David Hertzberg, director of public works for the City of Joplin, that whatever they need, materials, manpower and equipment, it's here for the asking," Rauch said.

The Monett Fire Department has had personnel in Joplin since Sunday night, and Chief Tom Jones and four firefighters were there yesterday. Fireman Bill Mahl was back in the station yesterday after being part of the team that headed into Joplin Sunday night after making the first response to Wentworth.

Mahl said the team initially went to the command post and received an assignment on a city grid to search through houses in a residential area. Most of the road signs were missing, making it difficult to know where the firemen were working.

On Monday, the Monett firefighters joined a task force from Boone County and changed their focus to the commercial district. They concentrated on the Home Depot store in particular, where they helped to remove several bodies.

Mahl said the city's rescue truck equipment proved quite valuable as crews went through the building moving collapsed walls. Search dogs provided clues of where to look, then firefighters checked every area where someone may have been trapped. City devices cut rebar apart from cement walls, and airbags were used to move partial walls.

By Tuesday, major support teams began to arrive. Mahl said the St. Louis Search and Rescue had 74 people alone. With the National Guard arriving as well, most of the small departments were sent home. The Monett team headed home at 3 a.m.

Unexpectedly at 8:30 a.m. the Joplin command center called and asked Monett to return with its extrication equipment. Jones headed back with two on-duty and two off-duty firemen.

The city has two sets of extrication equipment, Mahl said. The older set stayed in the city to take care of any problems that might develop.

The Barry Lawrence Ambulance District joined the effort in the early hours following the tornado. According to Office Manager Jeaneittia Pierce, the local service converted all four of its active ambulances to advanced life support (ALS), staffing each with a paramedic and an emergency medical technician.

Three ambulances ended up going to Joplin, leaving one ALS team and a stand-by rig used for basic life support runs in the local base.

"We were able to help evacuate nursing homes, help with triage, transport patients to local hospitals and find hospitals that would take the wounded," Pierce said.

The Monett Police Department sent three officers the night of the storm to help with traffic control and search and rescue. Dispatching Supervisor Bonnie Witt-Schulte said two dispatchers went to Walmart and got snack and food supplies to keep rescue crews refreshed in advance of the Red Cross arriving.

Monett police have maintained a presence in Joplin as the week progresses. Witt-Schulte said the department has sent four officers at a time to work eight-hour shifts. Their duties have concentrated on traffic control and scene security.

The city has monitored the ongoing effort by coordinating with the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA). Witt-Schulte said the city is prepared to send additional supplies and manpower as needed.

The emergency response continues to evolve. The Pierce City Community Emergency Response Team has been activated and plans to go to Joplin today. Glo Abramovitz, emergency coordinator for Pierce City, said the local volunteers and trained for search and rescue are would likely continue that effort.

Monett Rural Fire Association personnel have been in the middle of the search and rescue effort from the onset. Chief Kevin Litchfield said after spotting for storms on Sunday night then checking for local damage, a group of six firemen drove to Wentworth then continued to Joplin.

The group was immediately assigned to house-to-house searching, which they continued until 3 a.m. on Monday before returning home. On Tuesday, firemen were called back to continue the search. Litchfield said instead of going quickly through homes, this time his team of five made a very systematic search of every house, checking through piles of debris, even sleeping bags, to make sure no one had been missed.

"We've been lifting walls from houses to see if there's anything underneath," Litchfield said. "Even if a family says they have everyone accounted for, we have to look in case something has blown in from elsewhere. We're digging down by hand. We're going slow to make sure we don't miss anything."

Five special needs residents with Arc of the Ozarks have lost their homes and have been relocated to a home that had recently closed in Pierce City.

"These individuals lost everything," said John Foley, Arc of the Ozarks president and chief executive officer. "All employees and clients have been accounted for, but the loss of homes has opened up needs for numerous individuals."

Arc administrative staff has headed to impacted areas with bottled water and work gloves.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as needs," Foley said. "We are fortunate to have the homes, but the individuals lost everything."

Arc of the Ozarks supports people with disabilities throughout southwest Miss-ouri.

Purdy Fire District firefighters have also maintained a presence in Joplin. Nick Mercer, assistant chief of emergency medical services, said the district's Polaris Ranger, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, has been assigned to the Joplin Fire Department with a Purdy crew to work on search and rescue.

The Ranger's lighting makes it a valuable asset, Mercer said, in the absence of street lights.

Others have been able to serve without traveling. Purdy Police Chief Jackie Lowe said his officers have picked up duties for the Barry County Sheriff's Department, answering calls beyond the city limits.

Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly and five officers with that department have been on scene since Monday. Administrative personnel indicated that officers would rotate out until the crisis abates somewhat.

"The National Weather Service is predicting several more days of rain and thunderstorms," said David Compton, Barry County emergency management director. "I strongly urge area residents to prepare a 72-hour kit in the event we are subject to continuing severe weather events that may result in loss of power and services so they may have sufficient food, water and medications for themselves and their pets for up to three days."

Compton also credits the quick response to this latest disaster to a recent national level earthquake exercise hosted by the Barry County Office of Emergency Management.

"That exercise, based on the scenario of an earthquake taking place along the New Madrid fault, gave us a good idea of our available resources and has enhanced our ability to respond quickly to this large-scale disaster," Compton said.

Crosslines Director MaLinda King said the local charity has helped families displaced by the storm and provided funds for an Oklahoma man brought to Cox Monett Hospital for treatment to get back home.

Julie Johnson, city clerk for Pierce City who worked through the recovery effort from the May 4, 2003, tornado in Pierce City, said it was probably too early for much of the help area residents can offer. She recalled the first few days after the tornado strike was largely chaotic with an abundance of volunteers. She anticipated more ways to help would be clear in a few weeks.

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