Lessons Learned After Surviving Tornadoes
NEAL CONAN, host:
Another tornado disaster this spring, this time a twister tore a half-mile wide path six miles long through the center of Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday. It killed at least 89 people. Rescue teams continue to search for survivors. Main roadways and interstates are shut down. The roof was torn off the main hospital. We'll get more details on exactly what happened there and the rescue efforts that are under way throughout the day on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and on NPR News.
But while many in Joplin remain in shock, they may have lessons to learn from previous catastrophes. We'll focus on just two: Birmingham and Tuscaloosa in Alabama earlier this spring, and Greensburg, Kansas, four years ago. If you live in a place heavily hit by tornadoes, how did your town handle the next day, the next month and the next few years?
800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website, it's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now from Alabama Public Radio in Tuscaloosa is Doug Ray, executive editor of the Tuscaloosa News. And nice to have with you today.
Mr. DOUG RAY (Executive Editor, The Tuscaloosa News): Thank you.
CONAN: And I wonder, is there anything that you might be able to tell the people in Joplin, Missouri, from your experience just less than a month ago?
Mr. RAY: Self-sufficiency, I think, has been a thing that has really stood out here. The churches, the community groups, the volunteers have really picked up a lot of the load.
CONAN: Self-sufficiency. In other words, you're going to get a lot of attention for a while, but it's going to be the people who were there from the start that you're going to need to count on.
Mr. RAY: Yes, that's what our leaders have kind of - the mayor and other folks have really stressed is it's a marathon, it's not a sprint, and it'll be a long process of recovery.
CONAN: And that long process began how soon after the tornado?
Mr. RAY: Well, the first 48 hours, 72 hours, maybe even a little bit longer, it was still a search for people. There were a lot of missing people in Tuscaloosa. The number of dead was never as high as it has been, obviously in Joplin. But there were hundreds, even more than a thousand, I think, at one point who were listed as missing.
And so, for the first 72 hours, there was a lot of fear that the number of dead would increase. But after that, it really has been a process of trying to remove the debris. There's something like one and a half million cubic yards of debris in Tuscaloosa that they're in the process of trying to get to the roadsides and then get out of town.
CONAN: If you could have gone back and seen the town redo something differently from this vantage point, what might that have been?
Mr. RAY: Well, the emergency management system had fairly recently moved to a new headquarters and put all of its, kind of, eggs in one basket there. And that was taken out almost at the very beginning of the storm when it first came into town. So I think we probably would do a better job or will do a better job with how we cite those resources for emergency management.
CONAN: And has there been a problem with people who have no place to live?
Mr. RAY: There are about 60 people still living in a homeless shelter that the Red Cross runs, but there are a lot more folks living on couches in spare rooms with family and friends, people who were probably in apartments that they can't quite afford themselves.
They're getting some assistance from FEMA or, again, from friends or churches. But it's that next step that, six months to two years, that there really is not yet a clear path for how these people get to a sustaining - self-sustaining way of life.
CONAN: How has most people's experience been with their insurance companies?
Mr. RAY: I think that changes from insurance company to insurance company, but I think, overall, people are getting some money, but they're probably not getting as much money as obviously they lost in terms of possessions and things.
So - and then, just the increased cost of living when you're trying to recover, which is just more expensive. So I think people are getting something from FEMA or from their - from the local insurers, but it's certainly an added strain on them.
CONAN: Tuscaloosa is a college town. Obviously, the University of Alabama there had shut down early before the school year ended. How did that help, and how did that hurt?
Mr. RAY: One of the things that probably helped - two things, I think, it helped. One, there was a lot of students who stayed around and continued to help volunteer with the recovery efforts - not only in the night after the storm are - the students came out. Part of the storm went through a heavily - kind of a student housing area, and the students got out and helped their neighbors. But even since then, they've done a lot of work with the recovery. Also, by leaving, it's opened up a lot of apartments that otherwise would have been filled.
CONAN: And at this point, are people looking far enough ahead to say: No problem. We're going to get summer classes on time. We're going to get to the fall classes on time.
Mr. RAY: It shouldn't really affect the university's schedule too much. The number of students that will be back in the fall, for the most part, will have places to stay or probably already have had arranged that for the following year. There'll probably some scramble for those housing.
The students tend to pay more for housing that a lot of families can afford to pay, because you'll have three or four students all chipping on.
Mr. RAY: So the housing - the apartment stock in Tuscaloosa's actually pretty good, but it's fairly expensive.
CONAN: We're talking with Doug Ray, executive editor of the Tuscaloosa News, after the devastation yesterday in Joplin, Missouri. We're looking back at what happened in Tuscaloosa. And later, we'll talk about what happened in Greensburg, Kansas, four years ago, and see what their experience has been like.
But if you live in a place that's been hit hard by tornadoes, well, tell us your story. How did the town handle the next day, the next month and the next few years? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vicky's on the line, Vicky calling from Pleasant Grove in Alabama.
VICKY (Caller): Hi, there. Yes. I'm actually with a group that is still feeding people every day, the relief workers, the volunteers, the residents. And something that we're doing is we get out on pick-up trucks every day with coolers, ice, you know, full of Gatorade and water, because there's no shade left in these areas. There's not, you know - there's nothing to keep these guys cool. A lot of them are coming in from out of state, in areas where, you know, they're not accustomed to this weather.
And so one of the things we're making sure to do is to, you know, keep them from overheating. We don't want anymore tragedies, you know, than what we've already experienced. And something else that I wanted to share is the fact that, you know, people who are considering volunteering, who may want to come in from out of (unintelligible), you know, wait a week or two, because at the two-week mark, 85 percent of your volunteers will have dropped off.
And this sort of recovery is measured in terms of months and years, rather than days and weeks. So there's always going to be an immediate flood, but, you know, consider coming in and taking, you know, maybe a few weeks of work later on.
CONAN: Doug Ray, is that a good advice?
Mr. RAY: Yes. In the first weekend after the storm, we had a huge number of volunteers - a lot of them local - come in. But they weren't well-organized. And it really took about two weeks before the agencies and the city officials and - got things well enough organized that people could effectively work. The church groups that came in were kind of self-organized, did better. But individuals, in particular, if they came in by themselves, oftentimes just kind of sat around, looking for something to do.
CONAN: And I hadn't realized - one thing that Vicky said, of course, it's obvious: There's no shade. There's no trees left anymore.
Mr. RAY: In the areas that were hardest hit, you're right. They're just either stripped or they're gone.
CONAN: Do you recognize the town sometimes, blinking?
VICKY: It's - well, it changes every day. There's nothing that - you know, the old landmarks, especially in Pleasant Grove, it's difficult to find your way around just by street numbers. But the landmarks are now changing every day. The one house that, you know, with a funny little looters trap or the funny sign isn't there anymore/ So you're not sure where to turn or whose house is what, where. But, you know, there's a constant evolution, and we are starting to see some visible progress. But there's - you know, it's a long-term need.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Vicky. Appreciate it.
VICKY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Wade, Wade with us from Birmingham.
WADE (Caller): Hey. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
WADE: I had a pretty powerful experience. The second week after the storm, I was with seven teams of volunteers that went down to Tuscaloosa to help people that had been hit by the tornadoes. And the thing that was so overwhelming to me was the number of people who were, you know, taken off from work, finding - you know, going to just crazy lengths to find, you know, babysitters for their kids so they could go down there.
And so, you know, we were down there working to help impoverished families whose homes - you know, to go through the rubble, go through the debris of their lives. You know, sometimes, they were asking us: Can you find this ring that my great, great, great grandmother gave me? And we'd be working in a debris field, you know, that could be two or 300 yards, you know, long, by two or 300 years wide. We're looking for a ring that has such special significance.
WADE: Folks who lost loved ones. And there were so many amazing things that happened, though. We had people come up to us and say, hey, you know, my name's John. I'm from Meridian, Mississippi. I've been driving up here every day. I just want to help. Can I jump in with you team? You know, our team is from our church. And we'd say, yeah, come on, you know. And he'd work with us all day and meet with us - you know, drive back from Mississippi the next day.
And it's just overwhelming to see that kind of concern that people have for their fellow citizens, that it raised some questions for me, as a pastor, that really relate to what Bill Moyers was talking about in your previous interview, about patriotism and what it means to be committed to the well-being of our fellow citizens, regardless of their political or ideological views.
CONAN: Hmm. And, of course, among us being the most vulnerable and the ones who are hardest hit and certainly in disasters like this. Doug Ray, is that situation being revisited, people rethinking that issue in Tuscaloosa?
Mr. RAY: Yes. I think the people that have come out have put aside all sorts of divisions. It's interesting that in Tuscaloosa, I think, historically, there's been a perception that this is a city divided along different lines of race or class or religion, whether you're from here or not. And this is one of those things that I think erases that.
People are moving in, meeting people that they haven't met before. They're moving in different circles. They're rubbing elbows, working alongside folks who otherwise they might not have encountered. So I hope maybe one of the long-term outcomes is that people have made new relationships and put aside some of the things that kept them apart in the past.
CONAN: Doug Ray, good luck to you, and good luck to Tuscaloosa.
Mr. RAY: Thank you.
CONAN: Doug Ray, executive editor of The Tuscaloosa News, with us from Alabama Public Radio there in Tuscaloosa.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
CONAN: And with us now by phone from his office in Greensburg, Kansas, is Mark Anderson, editor of The Kiowa County Signal. And nice to have you with us.
Mr. MARK ANDERSON (Editor, The Kiowa County Signal): Thank you.
CONAN: And I guess, in a way, it must be amazing - four years ago. Four years ago, 95 percent of your town was all but wiped out.
Mr. ANDERSON: That's right.
CONAN: And I wonder, from your vantage point, what might you be able to tell the people in Joplin, Missouri today?
Mr. ANDERSON: I don't know. It's - we're a lot smaller town here before the tornado all over our county seat - we're in rural western Kansas, not many people live here, and we were only a population of 1,400 before the storm. We're probably eight to 900 now. I know Tuscaloosa's 93,000, and I think Joplin's probably about half that.
CONAN: About 50,000 is what I read. Yeah.
Mr. ANDERSON: Fifty thousand. Yeah. And I notice that your previous guest spoke about self-sufficiency. We didn't have enough of our town left or our resources our infrastructure to feel very self-sufficient.
So it was a situation where, at the outset, aside from the leadership of our three or four key leaders in terms of city and county and school, we - we're - the people who are really in great in need of and benefited a lot by the help and the presence of FEMA, USDA Rural Development, and later through the donations of volunteer groups like AmeriCorps, New York Says Thanks and just people from various church groups and voluntary organizations across the country. And still, volunteers, four years later, still come back to continue with the cleanup.
I noticed your previous guest said it's a marathon, it's not a sprint, and that's certainly true. There are still places here in town that need to be cleaned up.
CONAN: Still need to be cleaned up. And are people continuing to discover things?
Mr. ANDERSON: Are people - I'm sorry, what?
CONAN: Continuing to discover things.
Mr. ANDERSON: No, not so much. You mean, as far as artifacts and so forth?
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. ANDERSON: No. Not so much that. I think they're just discovering that there were more people they might have thought who have abandoned their property and kind of skipped out on paying any property tax or anything on it. And being a small town, that puts a burden on the local county and, well, city government, as far as cleanup. And again, that's where a lot of volunteers have helped.
We - they had lot of AmeriCorps kids here, oh, for the last couple of months, about eight or nine of them. And they did a tremendous amount of work while they were here. And there's - when you have people abandon their property, and it falls generally to the city or volunteer to clean up the mess.
CONAN: And so you learned some of the bad about people, as well as some of the good.
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, yeah. But, I mean, I'm talking about people that didn't have much of a stake here in the community. The ones who did, a lot of them have stayed, have started new businesses. We've had a few people - new people move in. Some of the older people moved to surrounding towns and have not returned back, and a lot of it has to do with the need for affordable housing, which still, there's a deficit of.
But overall, the people of the community have been as self-sufficient as they could, but like I said, they needed resources to help them in the very beginning.
CONAN: And has it been an opportunity to rebuild the town in a new and perhaps some - in some ways, better way?
Mr. ANDERSON: Completely. There was a real decision early on by the leaders, who at that time was then-acting Mayor John Janssen, our city administrator Steve Hewitt, one of our county commissioners Gene West and our school superintendent Darin Headrick. They all got a vision for rebuilding this town green, to make it energy-efficient.
And right now, we have the most LEED Platinum buildings per capita of any place in the country. And that's what they really decided to hang their hat on. But at the same time, that meant doing some things differently: Revamping the building codes, having expectations, some voluntary people rebuilding in as efficient a fashion as possible. And a lot of people have responded positively, at both residential building and commercial.
CONAN: I wonder, one of the things that happened right after the tornado was that the - you mentioned the acting mayor - the mayor at the time resigned.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, about three weeks later.
CONAN: And have you gotten to the bottom of that?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, he was a great guy, but he was a guy that kind of wore his emotions on his sleeve. I thought very highly of him. It's kind of ironic. A week before the tornado came through, he came into me - I guess it's OK to say this now - in confidence and said to me that he was really thinking about resigning, simply because he's a guy that likes to see things move, and he gets impatient when they don't move as quickly as you thought they should.
And he was ironically engaged in that big cleanup of the town then, because a lot of these smaller towns, you get really run-down areas, and it looks bad to people driving through. And so he was really pushing on initiatives such as that and having a code enforcement officer. And he was getting a lot of pushback, and he was just getting to the point where he's thinking of throwing it in.
Then boom, the tornado comes through. He's kind of revitalized at first, but we had one of our early city council meetings, and we had it under a tent - we didn't have building to meet in. Probably about two-and-a-half to three weeks after...
CONAN: And we got 10 seconds left.
Mr. ANDERSON: OK. And he just kind of - he couldn't deal with it anymore. But the people that stepped in after him really have done a banner job, and they get - they deserve all the credit.
CONAN: Mark Anderson, thank you very much.
This is NPR News.
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