Thursday, June 23, 2011

A New Yorker in Joplin

Immediately after a deadly tornado hit the city of Joplin, Missouri on May 22, destroying thousands of homes, killing more than 150 people, and throwing thousands of lives into disarray, the Red Cross in Missouri rushed to help. It housed, fed and provided comfort and caring to hundreds of residents, gave out tarps, gloves, rakes and dust masks, and distributed comfort kits containing essentials such as shampoo and toothpaste. Additionally, Red Cross vehicles drove through Joplin neighborhoods, providing residents with water, snacks and much needed emotional support.

The Greater New York region also sprang into action, deploying 12 workers to assist in the Joplin relief operation. James Bethea, a Greater NY Disaster Mental Health volunteer, was one of those dispatched to the disaster area. As his deployment was ending, the New York native checked in from Joplin to talk about his time there.

Greater NY volunteer James Bethea and friends
 What is your role in Joplin?

I got here four days after the tornado struck. I was assigned to a shelter where about 400 people—children and families—were staying. As far as the mental health work I’m doing, I’ve been talking to about 20 people a day. I’m part of an integrated care team that reaches out to family members who lost loved ones in the tornado. That’s obviously quite intense.

Was the situation on the ground what you excepted?

In our training, we’re taught to deal with trauma and crisis, but nothing really prepares you for these types of events. When I first arrived, I was overwhelmed by the destruction I saw and by hearing the gut-wrenching stories from the victims. It took me a while to really compose myself.

How does this role compare to your volunteer work in the New York area?

It’s different in the sense of scale. The tornado was about a mile wide and six miles long. The hospital, Home Depot and Wal-Mart were all destroyed. This was a city-wide disaster, as opposed to the smaller-scale traumatic events I‘ve responded to in New York.

What is the general mood?

The general feeling is shock, that this was a surreal experience. A lot of people are angry because they lost everything. For some people, the only thing they could salvage before the storm hit was a bag of clothes or some small valuables. But I am also seeing incredible resolve among the people—especially people who are out in the community. Neighbors are helping neighbors and people are moving forward. When people realize I am from New York, they’re really thankful, appreciative and humble that people have come from Red Cross chapters all over the country to help. But I feel like this community has helped me just as much. To see people bond together like that, support and comfort each other like that, it’s inspiring. I’m deeply humbled to be a part of it. It’s been an amazing experience.

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