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They need real heroes now

While the tornado may have only lasted a few minutes over each home, I expect that history may record that this week’s tornadic storm lasted years.

Responders from around the county are flocking to Mississippi in the wake of this week’s catastrophic tornado despite government efforts to quell the initial spontaneous response. People from all walks of life are sending supplies, trucking supplies and showing up in person to assist in clearing the debris and getting things back to normal, but to what end? And will it ever be back to normal?

It begins with the homeowners and residents. While an average 1200 tornadoes run across the country each year, the initial injury is to the mind as residents wonder how it happened and try to grasp how the tornado targeted them, their homes and community. I watched a reporter yesterday who chose his words carefully while standing just yards from a family that had lost everything in the March 24 storm; he described the mental state of those people as “bewildered”.

Once the initial horror begins to wash away along with the adrenaline produced by the tornado’s attack, bewilderment will definitely follow. This confusion, unfortunately, can run very deep and for a very long time even after the residents have entered other future stages of grief. I have known tornado victims to be operating in this bewilderment or confusion literally years after the event.

I believe that as responders and rescuers we can play a role in how quickly people heal and how they remember this event.

Because every person is different, their focus will be different as well. I have found tornado victims grieving over a refrigerator that they had just purchased before the storm and watched others sift through clothing scattered in a yard looking for that one blouse or dress. Others may have a larger picture as they view the totality of the damage to their home or the community as a whole. Each one in a different, individual but yet collective hell.

As responders, especially those that respond as volunteers, it is important to remember that while these families and individuals are all looking for leadership and guidance, what they are really searching for is to be rescued. Yes, the storm is over, but the real rescues occur much later than the night of the storm.

We will interact, live amongst and communicate with these people in one way or another. We are visitors in a strange land suddenly wading through what is the personal belongings, memories and lives of people we have never met. It is important to never forget that we are rescuers and responders.

The word “rescue” means to save someone from a dangerous or distressing situation”. The word “respond” means to “act or behave in reaction to someone or something”.

In order to truly respond to and rescue those that have been affected by this natural nightmare, we need to see the debris removal, chainsaw work and demolition as secondary to our true purpose as responders and rescuers. As humans.

It may be just momentary and it may be in a long conversation in front of a Salvation Army food truck but you will have the opportunity to truly minister to these people who called this now-strange place home long before you arrived. You can set the tone for any conversation by sharing how honored you feel that you can be there with them. When all is lost, dignity and respect can stay standing and recognizing that you are their guest can open doors to help more than you ever imagined.

Sharing that you are honored that they are “allowing” you to be there enforces psychologically that their place, their home and community still have value.

You will run into those that are trying to make the damage disappear as quickly as they can. We see evidence of this on television after natural disasters; people climbing onto roofs, climbing into trees, scrounging for salvageable items, cutting wildly at tree limbs and working at a fast pace as if to make it all go away. While taking action is admirable, the victims of such an event need to be reminded to ensure that their family and pets receive the medical attention they may need.

First and foremost, make sure that your new friend is okay physically. This may done with just a simple question like “Did you sustain any injuries?” or “How is your family feeling?”. This is more important than you think because the most common injuries in the immediate wake of a tornado are scratches and small cuts alongside feet that have found nails. Because of the threat of infection, even small scratches should be cleaned, treated with antibacterial ointment or cream and then covered. Make a mental note of who you assist with this and stop by to check on them while you are in town.

More on the importance of this.


While we had no idea at the time what it was, we experienced a strange phenomena in Joplin after the May 2011 tornado. A fast growing, flesh-eating fungus killed five people and attacked many more. The fungus, Apophysomyces infected people after the EF-5 Class tornado struck the Missouri town killing 160 and injuring more than 1000. The fungus is actually common and lives in soil, wood or water, three things that were not hard to see in Joplin after the tornado.

The fungus is introduced to the body through small holes and scratches. Death occurred within two weeks of infection.

While the CDC states that the fungus is “common”, there is little to no trainings available to first responders or the public on this post-disaster threat. (Please reach out to me, we have a training available!). Mortality rate from these cases of what are terrible soft tissue infections (necrotizing cutaneous mucormycosis) runs higher than 50% and have included visible mold growing from small wounds on victims.

You may encounter someone who is struggling to breathe or having sporadic chest pains. Anxiety is at an all time high in this environment so be aware of your basic first aid training so you can recognize the symptoms of someone that is having more serious health issues due to stress or exertion.

Once you have established that the person you are encountering is healthy, encourage them (or help them) to acquire sturdy shoes or boots, to use sun screen and bug spray and to stay clean by washing as often as they can. These people will not stop trying to work on their own property or homes, so make sure they can do so safely.

Make sure that anyone you encounter is not trying to live in a house that is unsafe or could be damaged easily by a follow-up storm. Use your connection as a responder to point them in the direction of a shelter if their house is uninhabitable. This is a lot harder than it sounds. I have run into a lot of people that are a lot tougher than I am that insist on staying in their homes to protect what little they have left or to protect equipment they need to work on their home. Remember that you are not in charge, you are a friend and a visitor and are concerned for their safety. If you get nowhere, make sure that you note the address and take your information to the authorities with your concern.

As you traverse the broken community, it may be that you are there to assist in debris removal. It is quite easy to lose focus when the piles seem a mile high and it all looks like junk, but again, remember… these are real people just like you. Marriage licenses, framed photos of family members and identification papers should be dropped in a Rubbermaid container or box at that address to be picked up later by local authorities, organizations or the individuals that resided at that address. I have made lifelong friends of people to whom I returned marriage licenses to… such a little thing can make all the difference.

It may be that you are there to do demolition work. There is no need to be a bull in China shop as much fun as that can be. Often times I have had the residents standing nearby as their house was razed and it can be an emotional time. The look on your face and the conversations you have with your fellow responders can determine how long the emotional damage lasts in that family after you leave.

Make sure you are working with a recognized group. The city and county have a plan and you want to make sure you are a part of that plan. After a tornado in Nebraska I came across a “team” of responders that had self-deployed and began doing demolition work on houses that had not been inspected yet while on the other side of town a team was emptying paint and chemicals out of a damaged garage and throwing the hazardous materials into a dumpster meant for regular trash.

Re-define what you think a hero is. Heroes are not big and bulky knights in shining armor who can cut up a large tree in 30 minutes nor are they all mid-twenty-somethings armed with every tool from the local Home Depot. The heroes in the aftermath of a natural disaster such as a tornado are those that never forget that they are in someone else’s community, walking on someone else’s lawn (even if it no longer looks like a lawn), and touching things that were never theirs but were once treasured by someone else.

They need a hero. They need lots of heroes and this is the stuff you won’t learn in a FEMA class. This is real life advice and you can make all the difference as to how long the disaster lasts.

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