JOPLIN, Mo.-One minute 41-year-old David Hoosier was sitting on his Joplin, Mo., front porch. The next he was huddling in the bathroom with his wife, four kids, and dog listening as a tornado ripped up his house. One minute his house sat on a peaceful, tree-lined street. The next the entire area was reduced to piles of twisted metal, torn-down power lines, and bare tree stumps.
Sitting outside a shelter, smoking a cigarette, Hoosier buried his head in his arms. He trembled and asked, "What do I do now?" Other residents, accustomed to tornados hitting their region but shocked at the magnitude of the destruction, wondered the same.
Some 134 people were dead after the May 22 tornado destroyed a six-mile swatch of Joplin, tucked into the southwest corner of Missouri near the borders of Oklahoma and Kansas.
In response to the destruction and the worst death toll from one tornado since 1947, groups from local churches were among the first to respond. Members of College Heights Christian Church in Joplin started mobilizing the relief effort Sunday night, distributing tarps and supplies they already had in storage, and collecting food, water, clothes, and toiletries to help out the survivors. By the next day, they started sending out work teams to help survivors dig through the rubble for any valuables.
Community Outreach Minister Jay St. Clair said they were able to respond quickly because they already had a system in place to help and to serve the community: "Once you have a church that is working in community outreach, you already have a lot of the logistics in place . . . and this is just extended during a crisis."
By May 24, the church was the designated distribution point for the disaster, with the Army and government agencies also bringing donations there. Piles of toys, toiletries, bottled water, clothes, and imperishable food filled the sanctuary and lined the hallways. A steady stream of survivors filed through the church to pick up supplies, eat a warm meal, and receive grief counseling.
The disaster hit close to home as 70 families in the church had losses of varying kinds. "At first I was burdened by a lot of the individual pain, crying with people for their losses, but now it's about making it logistically work," St. Clair said. "In a crisis sometimes the kindness is the ability to put together infrastructure. . . . It's the difference between helping people and letting them suffer." The church has also given money to hard-hit members, and more than 700 volunteers have helped by sorting through donations, comforting survivors, helping to dig through the rubble, and even turning off water mains in the damaged area.
Ignite Church, another Joplin church not damaged in the storm, opened up its doors as a shelter, with the Red Cross donating 40 cots. Volunteers fed 1,500 people, set up a first aid center, and gave out clothes, food, and durable goods. Shane Munn, the campus pastor of the church, said the church has provided a Skype station so survivors can connect with loved ones, and cell phone chargers so they can use their phones.
Munn said the response has been overwhelming as even church members who have lost homes and jobs are showing up to help others: "This is the largest tragedy to happen in Joplin, but it's also the largest opportunity for the city to experience Christ," Munn said. "Never have they been so ready to see God's love-and what other way to show them than through volunteering time and resources?"
A few days after the Joplin tornado, another series of tornados hit cities in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas, killing a total of 15 people. The storm killed nine people in Oklahoma and two in Kansas before heading east to Arkansas and taking four more lives.