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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Tornado as seen through the eyes of the chief

Monday, January 16, 2012

Emergency workers sift through the debris at the demolished Home Depot store in Joplin the day after a destructive tornado blasted through the area. Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles was one of the Joplin officials who helped coordinate the response effort, and he spoke about his experience to members of the Monett Kiwanis Club. [Times Photo by Ryan Schlichtman]
Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles walked members of the Monett Kiwanis Club through the events and aftermath of the May 22, 2011, tornado during the club's quarterly night meeting last week.

Randles, a 21-year veteran with the Joplin Fire Department, had been chief for a year before the tornado. Good fortune and help from friends within the emergency services community provided much of what the community needed to respond to its situation.

Tornadic storms usually move at 50 to 60 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service, leaving damage a couple blocks wide. Randles said the Joplin storm did so much damage because it moved incredibly slowly. Experts now think the storm sat for a full minute on the St. John's Hospital building and took 20 minutes to cross town, leaving a path of what Randles called "utter devastation" six and a half miles long and nearly a mile wide.

Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles, at right, used photos from the May 22, 2011, tornado to describe what his department faced and how rescue and rebuilding efforts were handled when he spoke at last week's meeting of the Monett Kiwanis Club. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Had the storm gone a half mile south and taken out both hospitals, or a half mile north, and hit downtown, the situation could have been even worse, Randles said.

For reasons he cannot explain, Randles ordered the storm sirens blown a second time, at 5:37 p.m., which is contrary to the normal protocol. He said many people have reported looking up when the sirens sounded a second time and taking cover, possibly saving their lives, as the storm hit at 5:41 p.m.

Randles' son had graduated from Joplin High School that afternoon. Instead of going home after graduation, Randles made another unusual decision and chose to go to the downtown dispatching center instead, taking his family with him. The move may have also saved their lives, as the tornado hit the Randles' home as it crossed town..

Debris from the storm was lifted 20,000 feet into the air, according to National Weather Service radar. A framed picture, extracted by the storm from the hallway of the destroyed #4 fire station, landed in Republic and was returned intact, glass unbroken.

The storm damaged or destroyed 7,500 residential structures and displaced 9,000 people. An estimated 18,000 vehicles were destroyed.

"You cannot build a building to withstand an F5 tornado," Randles said.

Thanks in part to the broadcast by Mike Bettes from The Weather Channel, who reached Joplin within the first hour after the storm, people of all sorts poured into the city. Randles said there were so many vehicles in streets that he could not get his fire trucks down roads to start searching.

Randles figured there were 5,000 volunteers from 535 area fire and police departments that came to help Joplin. Six Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) task forces from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came with four tractor-trailers and four gooseneck trailers carrying $1 billion in equipment. Only two US&R teams responded to Ground Zero after the 9-11 attack in New York.

Randles said the generosity of assistance was overwhelming, but in such a situation, one must be careful about what you request. Two Walmart vice presidents came the next day and asked what they could do. Randles asked for ice, Gator-Aid, clean underwear and socks. Within eight hours he had four 53-foot tractor trailers pull up loaded with those items.

Randles remains amazed that the city met FEMA's 90-day expedited schedule to remove five million cubic yards of debris, About one million cubic yards of that came from commercial buildings and the rest from residences.

The process carried its share of interesting discoveries. Only 40 percent of the 9,000 displaced persons had insurance. The insured have been able to build back. Many of the rest ended up in the 680 FEMA residential housing units set up near the Joplin Airport.

The tornado had such power that it removed nine concrete parking blocks from the St. John's lot and sucked up 25 manhole covers across town. Rescuers had to dive in every pond and swimming pool to make sure no bodies had been deposited there.

To date, permits have been issued to rebuild around half the buildings destroyed or damaged by the tornado. Randles expects the full rebuilding process to take up to five years. Just as some neighborhoods are changing, with owners buying up neighboring lots to rebuild with more space, Randles expects to see changes. A multi-use street like 20th Street will likely become mostly commercial, he said.

For a community trying to plan for a natural disaster, Randles had advice. He recommended getting to know the people who could come to help you in advance and not being afraid to accept or ask for help. He also advised that communities keep track of "everything" for the FEMA audit.

A total of 86,522 volunteers registered to help, logging 433,417 hours of service. Some simply came and threw up food stands to help. The volunteers have been called "the miracle of human spirit" for what they have done, Randles said.

Randles credited the success of the response to teamwork. He said the big difference between the public reaction to Hurricane Katrina and Joplin was the willingness of local residents to take care of their own problem, asking for help only when necessary.

The new motto in Joplin is "Rebuilding One Day at a Time." Randles said he can never thank all those who helped, but if their communities ever find themselves in a similiar situation, Joplin will be there for them.

Brad Hanson was the program chairman for the meeting. He reminded club members that the Monett Kiwanis Club donated $2,000 to the Joplin Kiwanis Club. That money was used to help hurting members and local organizations get through the disaster. Kiwanis President Eric Kean presided at the meeting, which was held at Big Baldy's Barbecue.

The Monett Kiwanis Club meets weekly for a meal and a program, usually at noon on Tuesdays.

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