[Ed. note – Aaron spent time recently in Joplin, MO providing support to the local law enforcement agencies. The following article is his observations from his time spent there.]
The large media outlets have covered the weather event that on Sunday evening, May 22, caused an EF-5 tornado (the most powerful form of a tornado) to strike the heart of Joplin, Missouri. Joplin, a town of about 50,000 in southwest Missouri, has seen tornadoes in the past as it sits in that horrible part of the country known as tornado alley. But even being in the alley doesn’t mean that you can fully comprehend the devastation of an EF-5 tornado.
When the tornado hit, Joplin had eight police officers on patrol. To the full credit of the professionalism of the Joplin Police Department, one hour after the tornado strike, more than 100 officers had reported for duty, accounting for about 95% of the department. Since that dreadful night hundreds of brothers and sisters in uniform from dozens of agencies have responded to assist.
Sadly, Officer Jefferson Taylor of the Riverside, MO Police Department was killed during the recovery efforts after being struck by lightning only one day after the tornado. Weather was still a concern at that time, as severe thunderstorms were still in the area. Apparently he was riding an ATV and had just dropped off a Fire official at the Command Post when lightning struck very close to him, knocking him over 15 feet away.
Initial reports had been positive for his recovery, as Officer Taylor successfully went through skin graft surgeries to treat his burns. However, on June 3, Officer Taylor succumbed to his injuries becoming the only Riverside Police officer to die in the line of duty, and the only officer to die from the Joplin tornado. Officer Taylor had served for the Webb City, MO Police, a city close to Joplin, before accepting a job at Riverside, which is just north of Kansas City.
Here are the facts as of June 9:
- 151 dead
- hundreds of others injured
- estimated over 2000 structures destroyed
- as many as 14,000 vehicles destroyed
- tens of thousands of people displaced
The 8-story St. John’s Hospital on the southwest side of town was reportedly moved 7 inches off its foundation. Every window was blown out of the hospital and parts of the building collapsed. It is a total loss and will need to be demolished. Six persons died inside. It is one of only a handful of significant structures that still remains on the landscape in the tornado affected area.
Thankfully the last of the “missing” has been accounted for, but they believe some of the injured may die in the days and weeks that follow, raising the numbers of dead on a near record killing tornado for the entire United States. It is estimated that it will cost at least $3 billion to rebuild Joplin.
As a part of the relief efforts in the devastated city of Joplin, Missouri my department has sent me and four other officers to the city to help with patrolling the tornado-stricken areas. We are the third “strike team” from our department to serve in Joplin, and I can say that it has been one of the most profound experiences of my career. Our Strike Team served June 3-5 and were assigned patrol duties during the 12- hour night shift.
When the first Strike Team arrived the situation was very chaotic. Thunderstorms were still rampant in the area, and our first strike team even had to take shelter from what was feared to be another tornado coming into the area. Their duties were mostly to secure key infrastructure, and to man checkpoints at critical intersections to provide traffic control. They also checked identifications to ensure that only residents and approved help was getting into the area.
The next Strike Team saw the operations a little more organized. In addition to monitoring checkpoints, those officers went on patrol in the devastated area. Residents were checked on, and suspicious activities were investigated. Sadly, in the first couple of weeks after the storm looters from all over came to pilfer on the piles of rubble that were all that was left of many Joplin resident’s homes. It was a metal scrappers paradise in the midst of utter destruction.
Looters weren’t the only parasites to arrive. Towing services from out of state and all over Missouri came to “help” residents remove their vehicles from the damaged area.
When we arrived, Joplin still had a curfew imposed in the devastated area during the night hours due to the concern over looters. In two weeks Joplin had made around 320 arrests!
In a sign of solidarity to their city, Joplin bonding agencies refused to post bonds for anyone arrested for stealing or other offenses in the tornado affected area.
On our first night, however, the Joplin Police decided to lift the curfew. Residents had been given two weeks to remove valuables and many of the looters realized that Joplin had no desire for their foul presence. Gratefully we did not see an influx in looting, however we did make one arrest in the affected area.
The sight-seers were still present during the day but the night returned to an ominous quiet. The tornado affected area was nearly pitch black surrounded by the unaffected areas that were brightly lit as any other large city in America. Utility crews had done an amazing job of restoring power poles, and the major intersections even had traffic signals re-established. Sprint and AT&T brought mobile cell towers (trucks with expandable towers) to the area and cell service was almost completely restored.
The relief effort was so strong that in the first week after the tornado the American Red Cross put out a broadcast asking that no more bottled water be delivered to Joplin. I could see why when we arrived. Two weeks after the tornado there were literally stacks of bottled water on street corners and at relief stations.
Here are some of the other amazing sights we saw:
- Packages of bottled water on nearly every major street corner.
- A tractor trailer wrapped around two trees like a twist tie for a loaf of bread.
- A house completely lifted off its foundation and laid into the adjacent street.
- A city park play set that looked completely untouched.
- A church completely laid bare except for a large metal cross standing firm.
- Enough smashed cars to stock several U-wrench it lots.
- At least one vehicle that landed on top of a building.
- Schools with their walls collapsed to expose the inside classrooms.
- Wal-Mart and Home Depot nearly leveled.
- Almost every tree in the area reduced to a shattered stub.
Insurance disaster response teams set up all around the devastated area. American flags everywhere! Including on the side of the destroyed St. John’s Hospital. People helping people, shaking hands, thanking everyone and God. Relief workers by the thousands, and sadly looters by the hundreds.
It is impossible to fully describe the scene in Joplin. Trying to put in words what it looks, feels, and smells like is an act of futility. The tornado obliterated a path of this city that runs about 18 city blocks wide and nearly 50 blocks long. An area over one mile wide and about five miles long through the heart of Joplin. Easily 35-40% of the city has been leveled.
Imagine looking for well over a mile in every direction, of what used to be a thriving city, only to see what looks to be an active trash dump or landfill. Many have compared the scene to the pictures of Hiroshima after the atomic detonation during WWII.
Worst of all is the fact that after two weeks the stench of death is still very strong in the air. Though the humans have been accounted for, animals and rotten food remain on every block.
The emergency agencies report that asbestos and other chemicals are strong in the area.
When we left, the Joplin Police and Incident Command were preparing to cordon off sections of the devastated area to allow heavy equipment to come in and completely remove any remaining debris. Hundreds of Missouri National Guard had already been assisting relief efforts and were being prepared to guard intersections during this event.
Due to the incredible response from Missouri law enforcement agencies, and the strict enforcement in the affected area that severely reduced criminal activity, our Strike Team was released early from our week-long assignment. It was a bittersweet declaration. On one hand we were glad that our efforts had helped establish order out of chaos. On the other hand we felt the enormity of the situation and wanted to do more.
The clean-up efforts will probably take months, and the rebuilding will take years, but from the residents of Joplin we encountered the strength of this community remains solid and the will to overcome will prevail.
Aaron is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.