By Ann Keyes
Missouri National Guard
JOPLIN, Mo. (1/17/13) - About 20 months after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's initial callup, the Missouri National Guard is winding down operations in Joplin following the devastating tornado that hit the town on May 22, 2011. Currently, one Citizen-Soldier remains as part of the state's Workforce Investment Board.
"Gov. Nixon gave this mission to the Missouri National Guard because he knew our Soldiers and Airmen would see the job through for the people of Jasper and Newton counties," said Maj. Gen. Steve Danner, adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard. "Now, nearly two years after that terrible day, we are leaving those communities in a much stronger position. I am awed by their resilience, and proud that our Guardsmen were able to help them rebuild and recover."
The night the tornado struck, members of Joplin's 203rd Engineer Battalion and supporting companies worked at search and rescue in the central disaster zone. Within days, military police, infantry Soldiers and aviation units joined in the state emergency duty.
At the height of the response, the Missouri Guard mobilized 377 personnel who worked at traffic control checkpoints and roving security patrols, in addition to assisting with transport and establishment of a Mobile Medical Unit for use by the staff of St. John's Mercy Hospital in Joplin.
Not long after, the mission took a different direction as Nixon tasked the Missouri National Guard with providing state oversight for the federal debris removal program in Joplin and nearby Duquesne. The Guard provided 45 personnel and developed debris clearance tracking mechanisms, liaised with municipal, state and federal partners, and resolved various property issues, resulting in a highly successful rapid removal process as part of a mission known as Task Force Phoenix.
This effort continued in 2012, with the Missouri Guard assisting the Department of Workforce Development with the Missouri Disaster Recovery Jobs Program for Jasper and Newton Counties, creating jobs to aid in the cleanup of public areas and restoration as a result of the disaster. Jobs included debris removal and restoration of public facilities and rights-of-way.
More than 1,500 people have been temporarily employed through the program with Guard members supervising and guiding the progress.
It's been a "good fit," said Capt. Aaron Garbet, a Joplin resident and former officer in charge of the Guard's Task Force Phoenix.
"In the last 10 years, we've seen our state emergency duty missions rise dramatically. Our Citizen-Soldiers currently are the best-trained force for reacting to a natural disaster of this size and magnitude. We are constantly being called upon for assistance, and time after time the Missouri National Guard is proving itself to be a dependable support platform for civilian agencies. Also, we're not just providing experience in emergency missions. Our Soldiers are bringing the experiences of a modern army. We're bringing lessons of a wartime military home and applying those to management and resourcing," said Garbet.
The effort not only helped the city recover from the obvious destruction, it also gave jobs to those who might not have otherwise had them.
"This program actually put people to work," said Maj. Brian Sayer, Current Operations Officer with the Missouri Guard's Joint Force Headquarters in Jefferson City. "People who were underemployed or unemployed could come into the Workforce Investment Board and apply for a position as a general laborer. Some of the employees were temporary and some of them stayed on and some of them moved on to bigger and better things because of the program. It helped them build their resume and job record and allowed them to go on and become more productive."
It also helped keep Joplin residents at home, particularly right after the tornado when many businesses were shuttered. The program gave temporary employment to locals who were waiting for their employers to get back on line, said Sayer, citing additional benefits.
"It helped financially in Joplin and Duquesne especially, because the homeowners or business owners who had debris from the tornado could ask for assistance, and the crews would come to their property and clean up for them. It didn't cost the homeowners or property owners anything to have the cleanup done," Sayer said.
For Garbet, the opportunity to work at home as a Guard member was doubly beneficial, as he was employed and allowed the opportunity to help put his hometown back together. Garbet and his wife, Tabatha, were married one day before the late spring storm that destroyed the couple's apartment and possessions. Having now moved on from his position with the DRJP, Garbet is thrilled he was a part of a mission he deems highly successful.
"The people of Joplin needed cleanup; they needed a program to help get the city back to work, get the city cleaned up and give people inspiration and hope," Garbet said. "The right programs and right people got together when a community needed them the most."