How Missouri SAR teams dealt with the aftermath of Joplin Tornado - includes video

Published:  27 July, 2011

The weekend of May 22nd, 2011 proved to be an unusually busy and challenging for the rescue response resources in the State of Missouri, writes Tim Dorsey, Deputy Chief of Special Operations and Training West County EMS and Fire Protection District. 

The St. Louis Metropolitan Urban Search and Rescue System was conducting a four-day response and deployment exercise in conjunction with the DHS/FEMA National Level Exercise. It wasn’t long for the teams could put their training experiences into practice, when a massive F-5 tornado hit the city of Joplin, Missouri.

The scenario was a significant earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone requiring local, state, and federal assets. This deployment exercise included the response of Missouri USAR Task Force 1 (MOTF-1), which is one of the 28 federally funded Urban Search and Rescue teams through DHS/FEMA. MOTF-1 is based in Columbia, Missouri in the middle of the state between St. Louis and Kansas City. Firefighters and other professionals from around the State of Missouri comprise the membership of the Task Force. MOTF-1 utilized the opportunity to partner with the Missouri Air National Guard to utilize some air transportation assets to deploy the team to the exercise, due to the probability of roadways being compromised during a significant earthquake event. The training event was a confirmation of the fact that the partners were all prepared, and it concluded with complete demobilization of assets on Sunday May 22 at around 1400 HRS. 

Tornado hits Joplin

Shortly thereafter, between 1730-1815 HRS, the City of Joplin, Missouri was devastated by a massive F-5 Tornado. By 2000HRS, State of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a State of Emergency and dispatched MOTF-1 as a State USAR asset to Joplin to conduct Search and Rescue (SAR) Missions. In addition, the Kansas City Metropolitan Urban Search and Rescue System had also dispatched multiple assets to Joplin through the State Fire Mutual Aid system as they are the closest metropolitan area to Joplin. MOTF-1 sent 2 forward teams almost immediately and the main body of a Type I USAR Task Force followed. All units were on the ground and actively engaged in SAR operations during the early morning hours of Monday May 23. Upon sunrise, the magnitude of the devastation and indiscriminate destruction was blatantly evident. It was echoed many times by many rescuers that it appeared as if a nuclear bomb had detonated eerily similar to the pictures everyone had seen from Hiroshima Japan in 1945.

Path of destruction

The Tornado cut a 15-mile long, two mile wide path of destruction through the city incapacitating many areas including a large hospital, residences, businesses, roads and infrastructure. Firefighters and first responders from Joplin, the surrounding areas in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas had been diligently working through the night since the onslaught of the event. Numerous rescues were performed in those initial hours.  

SAR operations

MOTF-1 members performed SAR operations in the 20th Street corridor, which was basically the transecting epicenter of the tornado. The area consisted of single-family homes, apartments, small businesses and schools. At the intersection of 20th Street and Range line Rd, there was a commercial district including several big box stores such as Home Depot and Wal Mart.  Home Depot and Wal Mart were constructed with “Tilt Up “Construction. When the tornado hit, it compromised the roofs of these structures causing partial and total structural wall collapse. MOTF-1 performed structural concrete, breaching, breaking, lifting, moving, and stabilizing of these structural concrete wall segments to search for viable victims. These tilt up walls were comprised of reinforced structural concrete with a layer of insulating foam, covered with an additional layer of concrete. It was estimated that each one of the wall segments weighed approximately 80,000 Pounds. The operations at the Home Depot store concluded on Tuesday May 24th at around 1930 HRS. Unfortunately, no live victims were recovered. 

Weather challenges

Environmentally and operationally there were challenges as well. Weather being the most prominent.  The weather system that spawned the tornado continued to torment the region for 48 hours. In the first 24 hours post touchdown over 3.5 inches of rain was received as well as continual cells of severe thunderstorms with over abundant lightening and hail that required the team members to seek shelter upon numerous occasions wherever possible. Two police officers were struck by lightning on Monday and one of them succumbed to his injuries and perished a few weeks after the event. Operationally it was difficult t search 15-20 foot tall debris piles comprised of lightweight building materials, furniture, and other household items. MOTF-1 canines became a valuable asset and commodity to assist with this. Ultimately, the St. Louis Metropolitan USAR system was also requested to respond for assistance through the Statewide Fire mutual Aid system domiciled in the Missouri Division of Fire Safety. This response included approximately 100 rescuers, which were assimilated into two robust FEMA Type III USAR teams. In addition, multiple canine asset requests were also made throughout the state and ultimately through DHS/FEMA for USAR canines from other DHS/FEMA USAR teams throughout the USA since the incident was declared a Federal Disaster by President Obama.


Logistically, all teams and responders were self sufficient for communications, food, water, and shelter.  Eventually, as services in the city began to come back on line, this made available normal infrastructure for the out of town teams to access and utilize including hard shelter college dormitories and shower facilities graciously made available from Missouri Southern State University. These were put to use on the last evening of the deployment, May 24th, when the area was under multiple tornado warnings yet again. Fortunately, nothing materialized and demobilization and the return of MOTF-1 personnel occurred on the morning of Wednesday, May 25. 

The experience of the Joplin Tornado response will resonate for some time with all of the first responders involved. From the members of the Joplin Fire Department who still witness the everyday hurdles and tragedies in their life and city, to the response teams from around the state and region that assisted in their time of need, this is an incident that will not soon be forgotten.

Watch the video of the Joplin Tornado below

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