By Jeff Lehr
A Joplin police officer who weathered the May 22, 2011, tornado is among thousands of volunteers bolstering recovery efforts on the East Coast following Hurricane Sandy.
Cpl. Chuck Niess, a public information officer with the Joplin Police Department, made the trek as a member of the Southwest Missouri Incident Support Team and has been working at the Emergency Operations Center for Nassau County on Long Island, N.Y., since the team arrived by motor vehicles Nov. 9.
The center is located on the ground floor of a three-story building in Bethpage, N.Y. The volunteers have been sleeping on cots in vacant offices on the second and third floors of the building between work shifts.
Niess sees some of the same disaster-recovery problems there that emergency workers faced in the wake of the tornado that ravaged Joplin.
“When we first got here, there were 800 in the shelter,” Niess said in a telephone interview Friday. “It was down to 318 this morning. The problem is: There’s just no vacant housing around here.”
You have to drive an hour or more inland to have any chance of finding a hotel or motel with rooms available, he said.
The authority that provides power in the area had managed to get 99 percent of its customers back on line by Thursday, he said. But there are about 1,800 homes in the area where he is working that were so badly damaged they remain without power.
Niess said the devastation is comparable to what Joplin experienced, with about 10,000 structures damaged or destroyed in Nassau County. He said many near the shore were simply obliterated. As you move inland, you find homes and buildings with gradually less wind and flood damage.
He said a logistical problem volunteers were trying to solve Friday, with the help of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, was location of a warehouse to store donations that are pouring in from other parts of the country.
Niess, a 23-year veteran of the Joplin police force, lost his home in the tornado that struck Joplin but still played a part in the public service effort that kept the city functioning in the aftermath of the disaster.
“We’re committed to 14 days here,” he said. “We’ll have to see how things are going next week. But we’re committed until after Thanksgiving at least.”
Cpl. Chuck Niess joined the Southwest Missouri Incident Support Team three months ago, and this is his first deployment.