Kan. Salvation Army among first to help Joplin tornado survivors
A group of Pittsburg volunteer relief workers were instrumental in assisting the dazed survivors of the EF5 tornado that wiped up to a third of Joplin, Mo., off the map Sunday night.
Pittsburg Salvation Army volunteers were the first signs of civilization and order many of the victims saw as they stumbled from their homes near the intersection of 20th and Main Streets, ground zero for some of the worst destruction in the city. Volunteer Peggy Snyder, who is the dean of graduate studies and continuing education at Pittsburg State University, said they set to work immediately after they arrived shortly after 7 p.m.
"When we got through, a man rushed up to me and said, 'please tell me you're stopping here,'" Snyder said, adding that they arrived even before first responder units first rolled down Main Street in caravans up to three blocks long.
The parking lot of a Walgreens, where they set up their canteen truck, turned out to be a good place to stop. The pharmacy was just yards from the path of the EF5 tornado and had suffered serious damage, but the manager immediately opened its doors and started bringing out water and food, as well as medical supplies for the nursing students from Crowder College who soon arrived to set up a triage station there. Then Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken employees brought food from across the debris-strewn street.
"We made sandwiches until 3 a.m.," Snyder said, surrounded by cases of water, soda and assorted foodstuffs. "You can imagine that it was terrible. It was just a mass of humanity."
Capt. Gary Gugala, who oversees the Pittsburg branch, said the committee decided to move as soon as members saw the first damage reports on TV, and that the branch's monthly training prepared them to jump quickly into action.
"It wasn't a matter of if it was going to happen, but when it was going to happen," Gugala said, adding the his crews had recently conducted a series of dry runs in Crawford County. "We were problem-solving, and helped set up a sense of normalcy."
After additional volunteers showed up from around Joplin to help, the Salvation Army volunteers coordinated a backpack campaign, loading up meals to be taken by foot to victims still too stunned or afraid to leave their broken homes. All together, Snyder estimated they provided more than 900 meals a day.
"There are people who had nothing," Snyder said. "Now they have even less. But there's something about the comfort of food and something to drink."
The tornado's victims weren't the only beneficiaries of the Salvation Army volunteers' hospitality. The nurses, nursing students and other aid workers at the site relied on their help, too.
"We can't do this without them," said Michelle Hall, a nursing instructor at Crowder College who has been marshaling her students at the site since Monday. "They gave us food, water and support. A couple times some of us broke down and they gave us hugs."
Hall said the victims have been grateful.
"They've said it's so nice just to have someone who cares," she said.