Preparedness Summit: A Community Comes Together in Joplin

Feb 22, 2012, 3:49 PM, Posted by

Joplin Clean up crew in Joplin following a destructive and deadly F5 tornado May 22, 2011

It’s no surprise that a plenary session at this week’s Public Health Preparedness Summit is devoted to the devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., last spring. Late in the afternoon on May 22, 2011, a multiple vortex tornado struck Joplin, a city of about 50,000 people. The tornado and its aftermath left 161 dead and more than 900 injured along with the destruction of thousands of homes, businesses, schools, and one of the community's major healthcare facilities, St. John's Medical Center. Public health, health care, and community-based agencies immediately responded to begin planning for the short-, mid-, and long-term needs of that community.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Melissa Friel, Director of the Center for Emergency Response and Terrorism at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, who is a leader in the ongoing recovery effort and a presenter at the Summit.

NewPublicHealth: What are you most proud of about the response to the tornado?

Melissa Friel: It turned out to be the single deadliest tornado in the history of the United States, 162 individuals lost their lives and 713 patients were sent to 42 hospitals in four states requiring quite a robust emergency medical and an emergency response effort.

We partnered in the state robustly and well together, even though tactical communication was a challenge because cell phone towers were down. So we learned a lot of lessons, but we learned really well together and the local emergency staff did a remarkable job. It’s our job at the state level to support their efforts and to be able to provide any assistance that they can’t, and at the state level we turn to the federal system for any assets the state can’t provide. It was really a remarkable effort on behalf of the local, the state and the federal response.

NPH: What are some of the lessons learned?

Melissa Friel: There was not a staging area set up immediately following the tornado to bring in assets that were deployed under mutual aid. That was one lesson we all learned. So, going forward that would be the model we would use so that every asset would be sent to one location and would be deployed into the affected area. We continue to work on the tactical communications piece making sure that law enforcement and EMS and the local emergency operation center could talk on the same radio channels.

NPH: What would you like people—citizens and emergency response teams--to learn from your experience?

Melissa Friel: I think the most important thing is the partnerships you create before an incident occurs. You have to think outside the box of your discipline and realize, for example, that when we talk about health and medical it’s not just the hospitals. Fifty-six physicians’ offices were destroyed by the tornado, so imagine it’s a Sunday afternoon and you have a medical appointment the next day to get your prescriptions refilled, and now your doctor’s office is destroyed so where do you go for healthcare? And three long term care facilities were destroyed. There’s a critical need to think about that 360 degree response for health and medical and making sure you know the people who are in charge of each discipline and you don’t wait until an incident occurs to learn who they are or to trade business cards on that day. That work has to be done now.

NPH: One of the things that I recall from when the tornado happened was that people didn’t necessarily heed warnings. How do you get people to be prepared to hear weather warnings, and then to pay attention?

Melissa Friel: I think one thing we’re looking at is how you can make people aware that, yes, this tornado is coming, and it’s not just another set of warning sirens. That’s a great question that I don’t know that we have an answer to. Do you send police cars down through town with their sirens going, and a loud speaker blaring “warning, a tornado is coming”? That’s one of our after actions that we continue to work on, and I’m sure NOAA is having that same concern. How do you let people know that, yes, this is really going to happen because especially if you live in a tornado alley or where tornadoes occur on a regular basis, that is an issue. People become desensitized to these warnings. And the sirens themselves, they’re not built for people who are indoors. They were designed for people who are outdoors, working or playing in a park.

We have a program in Joplin aimed at individual and family preparedness and we really advocate for weather radios. I have one in my own home and it gets a little frustrating at 3 o’clock in the morning when it goes off because there’s flooding, but those weather radios are lifesavers and we just need to heed the warning. Then look at the internet, look at television, what are they saying? Is it coming your way?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.