The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

June 2, 2011

Joplin tragedy overwhelming

It is truly hard to fathom the kind of destruction that leveled one-third of the bustling, small metropolitan city of Joplin, Mo.

The photographs and videos you’ve seen  on television certainly demonstrate the massiveness of the tragedy.

But, you don’t get the feel of how overwhelming this tragedy is until you see it, smell it and hear it.

I spent a couple of days in Joplin last week working at our sister newspaper, The Joplin Globe. Several Globe staffers had lost homes and property in the storm.

One Globe news team member was killed. Yet, the news staff there was at work from morning until night covering all aspects of this storm, documenting stories of survival — but most importantly — trying to get an accurate count of the dead and the missing.

Getting control of the grim process of recovering and identifying bodies and helping family members recover their loved ones’ remains turned out to be the hardest job that faced the city of Joplin and the state Department of Public Safety.

It also turned out to be the major news story the national media focused on.

Yet, while some lists were released  that said 1,500 were missing or listing certain people as dead when they weren’t, The Joplin Globe was meticulously trying to confirm each and every death.

It was difficult given the fact the lists provided by officials were often wrong, and the county coroner was not being very cooperative in helping the newspaper identify the dead.

By the third day after the tornado, many family members were voicing frustration over the process. Many knew their loved ones were dead, but they weren’t allowed to identify or collect the bodies.

They were told “we’ll call you,” and believe me, that just doesn’t go over well in this kind of crisis.

The thing that stands out in my mind the most has been the leadership of Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon.

Immediately after the tornado, Nixon called in the National Guard to help.

The governor also began writing executive orders to make it easier for people to retrieve prescription refills or to get new driver’s licenses or other forms of identification that were lost in the the storm.

When it became obvious there was too much confusion with the identification of the missing and the dead, the governor tapped the Department of Public Safety and Missouri Highway Patrol troopers to take charge and get the list whittled down to a manageable level.

The governor’s actions propelled a sense of urgency, and as of today, there are zero people listed as missing.

Everyone has been accounted for and the process of recovering remains has been made more efficient.

The governor also has tapped the National Guard with the responsibility of getting the cleanup process under way.

The Guard has been performing admirably bringing a sense of order and urgency to a community that is literally in chaos.

Joplin has a long way to go, and there will be many state and federal agencies involved as they go through the process of rebuilding their community.

But, the quick actions of some key state leaders helped get many through the initial part of this crisis.

Communities and states are always doing disaster drills and exercises; often, those exercises deal with mass casualties.

The Joplin tornado disaster is a casebook example of what can go wrong, and when it does go wrong, how to try to fix it quickly.

The governor of Oklahoma and local emergency management groups should take heed of what has happened in Missouri.

Of course, we hope we never have to put our disaster plans into effect.

But, if it ever does happen, quick reaction and organization on the part of the city, county and state will be of utmost importance.

Allen is managing editor of The Enid News & Eagle. She can be reached at 548-8163 or by e-mail a editor @enidnews.com.

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