JOPLIN, Mo. —
Within an hour after the 2011 tornado, the Joplin Health Department had a shelter set up with 160 beds ready for displaced residents until the American Red Cross could get local operations going.
Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department, told members of the 55-Plus Lunch Bunch on Tuesday about the role the Joplin Health Department played in the aftermath of last year’s deadly storm that took 161 lives and injured about 1,000 people.
While the work of other city departments such as fire, police and administration may be more apparent, “a lot of people don’t know what we do in response” to an emergency, Pekarek said of the department. Pekarek said the work of all those departments is regarded as having set the standard for good response to a disaster.
One of the health department’s most important roles in the tornado response was helping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify the cause of an illness that developed among some of the people injured in the storm. The cause would turn out to be a fungus infection, mucormycosis, that is normally present and benign in plant material and soil but turns infectious when it gets under the skin. It struck 13 and contributed to five deaths.
As health director, Pekarek reports to the city’s emergency operations center with other city department heads to coordinate response and relief efforts.
Pekarek said that under the city’s emergency response plan, it is his duty to see that a shelter is set up for people who are displaced from their homes.
The city had bought cots, blankets and other emergency supplies after an ice-storm disaster three years before the tornado. Pekarek also helps the American Red Cross set up its sheltering operation.
“We were looking at Memorial Hall when we realized how big the disaster was,” Pekarek said, and decided instead that the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University would accommodate more people. The health department also set up a pet shelter in the same area so that people could be near their pets.
With St. John’s Regional Medical Center and many doctors’ offices destroyed, and electricity, telephone lines and cell towers knocked out, Pekarek quickly realized the challenge for a coordinated response.
“Communications was a huge problem,” he said. “There was no way to communicate with Freeman Health Systems and others on providing emergency health care. He gathered up radios and had them delivered to health care providers so that they could exchange information about what was needed to care for the injured and sick.
In the days after the storm, the health department helped secure temporary offices for doctors and coordinate care for people whose doctors were displaced.
The animal control division of the health department had to do a lot of work to try to round up pets that were lost in the tornado debris.
“Pets were running everywhere,” he said. “You could shine headlights across the debris field and you saw eyeballs everywhere,” Pekarek said. Many pets were trying to hide or stay in the debris of their homes. Animal control officers assisted by other animal welfare groups rounded up 1,300 animals. There were 525 reunited with their owners and new homes found for the rest. None were euthanized unless they were badly injured, Pekarek said.
“It was such an emotional thing to see people find their pets after three or four weeks,” he said.
In the later months, the health department assisted the Environmental Protection Agency in monitoring the city’s air quality as debris was cleared, Pekarek said.
Another chore was cleaning up medical waste that was strewn through the debris field from the destruction of the hospital and other medical offices.