Edward Duff – trauma after natural disasters – Joplin tornado a year later

How to fix trauma after natural disasters

Edward Duff is a Joplin tornado survivor and has an incredible story about trauma after natural disasters.  Joplin is about three days by bike or three hours by car from Kansas City. On May 22, 2011, 5:41 pm, Joplin was hit by a huge tornado that wiped out an entire half mile by one mile strip of the city and damaged up to 70% of the buildings in other parts of the city. Edward says, “The worst thing about that tornado was in the aftermath, we’d be walking around what used to be the city, and have no landmarks at all to tell us where we were.”

Edward Duff flew half a mile in this car during the Joplin tornado and now talks about trauma after natural disasters

Edward Duff flew half a mile in this car during the Joplin tornado and now talks about trauma after natural disasters

I thought it was the deadliest tornado in US history, but Wikipedia says not.  “As of November 12, officials reported that at least 160, and possibly as many as 161 people died from the tornado.  It was the deadliest U.S. tornado since that of April 9, 1947 in Woodward, Oklahoma and surrounding locations, the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history  and 27th-deadliest in World history.  It was also the first single tornado since the June 8, 1953 tornado in Flint, Michigan, to have 100 or more associated fatalities.”

Edward flew a half mile in his car that day. He was driving to an errand and saw the storm clouds and got caught up in it.

He emailed me about three weeks after the tornado with this description of the scene as the city put itself back together and people tried to help each other heal from the trauma after natural disasters like this tornado.

The human response of trauma after natural disasters (as told by Edward Duff)

One Ozark Center employee, a leadership cadre level staffer at the drug rehab unit, was sucked out through the plate glass doors into the parking lot just in time to see a large dumpster crush his pickup.  Despite his wounds from glass, he loaded up the people at the unit there, adjacent to the St. John’s hospital, and directed the recovery of patients that had been sucked out of the nine-story hospital ( a corporate competitor in the local health care scene).  Only after that did he personally go get the glass embedded in his own body removed, an over three hour process.

It is still an operative fact, not a criticism, just an accurate observation, that Joplin area mental health consumers cannot access their caseworkers, or find alternate appointments for their ongoing but much more needed mental health care. [This means, in addition to their trauma after natural disasters, many of them are dealing with acute medication withdrawals.]

In my sorties through the various feeding stations on parking lots in Joplin, I have found some very interesting things.  At one tent, some chiropractors are assisting people free of charge.

How acupuncture is healing trauma after natural disasters

One of the most interesting to my own mind is the response of accupunturists who ordinarily do Drug Court care in the Kansas City area.  [The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association.]  I attended their conference just a week ago, on the Friday and Saturday prior to Sunday’s tornado.  [Robert Whitaker was the keynote speaker.] I literally sat at the same banquet table at their national conference Friday evening with one of the ladies doing accupuncture care on a parking lot at 26th and Main in South Joplin on Memorial Day.  Of course, since this kind of care helps settle people down from their trauma after natural disasters, I got another round of needles in my own ears too.  Since I have a spine full of titanium and bone grafts now, I passed on the chiropractic manipulation.  I didn’t see that they brought a metal detector, ha ha.
Photo taken by Boone county fire department who helped handle trauma after natural disasters

Photo taken by Boone county fire department who helped handle trauma after natural disasters

The simple fact of things here is that a vast array of ad hoc responses in no apparent organizational framework has responded.  There is absolutely no need for clothing or food in Joplin, or bottled water.  Water is stacked waist high on many corners in the storm path.  Tools, shovels, rakes, etc. are propped up on whatever can support them or lying at street corners.  There are not many street signs and posts on Joplin corners now, they are simply gone.  Someone has gone around staking out small banners to replace them at key intersections.  Without this, even life-long residents cannot figure out what street corner they are near.  Few reference points exist, either geographically or cognitively.  There is a new normal here that goes something like this:  tired, dirty, smelly, and still doing something, whatever seems to be next.

Of course, some people are still stunned by their trauma after natural disasters into a sort of sleep-walking state.  I have been going into the storm swath and simply leading people by the hand to a safer place when it seems needed, and that simple act is absolutely needed.  There is simply too much sharp and dangerous debris to negotiate in a sleep-walking state.  The official responders are often ignoring people wandering around “lost”.  Basically, if they aren’t loading up merchandise from a destroyed storm, the responders leave people completely alone.  The attention is mostly on directing traffic.  It has been amazing how soon almost all the roads and streets have been cleared.  During the night time curfew, the road crews have been operating heavy equipment to clear the pavement everywhere.  You can drive down any Joplin street that wasn’t sucked up into the tornado.  …Yes, the storm did suck up the pavement in some places.  Some foundations are gone, not just the structure that stood on top of them prior to the storm.

Now and then someone would rather fight than be led to safety, so that means that I just go to the next available person, not far away.

Many of these trauma victims are still in the clothing they had on before the storm, or whatever they could find from the rubble, often clothing that is not “gender appropriate” or fitting properly. [There were also about eight deaths later from a very rare fungus infection that came from tornado debris that had gotten into wounds and the wounds had healed without proper cleaning.]

I am reminded of images of Bangladesh from the 1970s, or of post-war Berlin or Coventry, England.  Another comparison is the snapshots my father has of his service on Okinawa, Japan during the invasion and just afterwards, without the big blow torches to get survivors out of caves.  I have literally found people still hiding under their beds a week afterwards.  Some people in the suburban areas outside of Joplin have expired from lack of hydration because they were still hiding somewhere in a state of…  trauma, I suppose is the best term.  This is one of the reasons the death toll number has continued to rise in the area.  Some people have “frozen brains” from this trauma after natural disasters.  They are simply not thinking, cannot resolve what to do next and do nothing at all.

It is getting near time for me to go back into Joplin and get “amongst it”.

The industry to label and diagnose trauma after natural disasters:

What was left of the Joplin high school

What was left of the Joplin high school

One further observation:  There appear to be people who spend most of their lives responding to these major disasters, like hippies used to follow the Grearful Dead rock band from venue to venue.  There are nomads like that all over the place here, that are apparently just ingratiating themselves into the system that is providing food and resources, some who are genuinely doing hard and dirty work for no compensation but the tents that have sprung up on parking lots all over the place, and some who are apparently just camping out in a new place and feeding off of the chaos.

This is something new to me.  It is comparable to pyromania, I suppose, but I lack vocabulary for it, except that the Civil War had “camp followers” and so did the Transcontinental Railroad project.  Storm and disaster response has this kind of following too.  It is a little like a gold rush or mining strike in that way. [Here is an article explaining more about this trauma industry.]

Truama after natural disasters one year later:

Edward sent me this email recently explaining what things are now looking like a year later.

When I was over there Friday, people were picking up debris and building stuff. Which was what I was doing too. Volunteers from all around the country are still showing up, mostly from big evangelical type, non-denominational mainly, churches. They are gearing up to really go at it large-scale. Some very interestingly-designed small homes have been put up where more traditional four-bedroom, two bath tract houses were before the storm.

But it is clear that the local “non-profit” community mental health center has outright rejected the use of AcuDetox acupuncture even in its drug rehab unit. The trauma-relief aspect is being ignored too, but Missouri law basically insists on this outcome. There is a work-around, to do it under the supervision of a physician. There is malpractice insurance available so the odds of finding one to do it are at least slightly enhanced.  [The trouble is that many medications are not effective for trauma after natural disasters or any other kind of truama. Giving the the label can simply be harmful all by itself. ]

Edward Duff applying five point ear acupuncture to Corinna West

Edward Duff applying five point ear acupuncture to Corinna West

Of course, the churches are really doing all the heavy lifting now that the FEMA monopoly cleanup contractors have left town. They were doing it all along. They can do counseling and whatever else considered mental-illness related too, without licensure, as long as they aren’t practicing medicine without a permit.

The area is somewhat less traumatizing just to look at it now, with the biggest part of the rubble and debris removed, but it is still very disorienting to be in a once-familiar part of town and not be able to figure out where you are because the landmarks you imprinted upon are simply gone and you can see clear to both the East and West horizon from South Main Street. The other thing is that you don’t see rabbits and squirrels, but you do see cats coming up out of the storm sewers. Some Mexican roofers told me they’ve been seeing big rats. I lend this observation a great deal of credibility. I suspect there are undiscovered cadavers and other organic detritus to feed upon. It still smells that way on a warm afternoon, like a battlefield. It has the same kind of “vibe” as one too.

What have you found to be the helpful thing for trauma after natural disasters?

Edward Duff

Wordworks Blog Author: Edward Duff

Edward Duff worked as a policy analyst for NAMI Missouri for 20 years until he met Robert Whitaker and read Anatomy of an Epidemic. He is now on break from online media but is working to connect trauma survivors in Joplin with spiritual communities. He is also working to create an epistimology or worldview that explains why and how certain beings chose to benefit from other people's suffering.

4 comments to Edward Duff – trauma after natural disasters – Joplin tornado a year later

  • Edward Duff

    It looked better Friday, March 16, 2012, but still very surreal. Lots of people are very busy and people are driving wildly. I was informed that domestic violence incidents have tripled among the remaining residents compared to pre-catastrophe levels, in a city-center population reduced by about 1/4th. Metro area stats are much harder to track. Joplin was about 50,000 population in the city center and 220,000 in the three-state, four-county metro area at the corner of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. There is lots to do here if someone has the time and stamina. People are jumpy and today, on St. Patrick’s Day, it would be easy to assume that everybody started drinking when the got up this morning. This is an observation from going to buy some groceries at mid-morning.

  • tornado survivor

    I am just now realizing that I am having more and more difficultis coping with PTSD. Constantly anxious, panic, depression, and littlest things set me off. We lost our home, lost EVERYTHING, I lost my job, lost a good portion of our income because of it, and now I can’t seem to concentrate to go outside the home to work. Weather gets crazy outside and I get panic attacks. I am not religious and I can’t cope with talking to counselors who bring religion into my therapy. I need to talk… my best friends are in another state and have not been able to sit down and let me talk and I don’t want to talk with my husbands’ coworkers as I don’t know them well enough. Don’t know what to do. 🙁

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