The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 21, 2012

Tornado ‘caregivers’ still working hard, still needing support after 18 months

By Emily Younker

JOPLIN, Mo. — Staff members at the Lafayette House in Joplin have been working harder than usual since the May 2011 tornado.

Clients have been staying at the shelter longer because of a lack of affordable housing, and they are seeking longer treatments for drug and alcohol issues, clinical director Rebekah Oehring said. There also has been a rise in domestic violence cases resulting from post-tornado stress and trauma, she said.

Working that closely with such rough issues can take a toll on those who are providing support, and Oehring said that’s why she has been conscious of the mental and emotional health of the staff.


“One of the biggest parts for us is hearing all the stories and the need we saw to provide support to our staff,” Oehring said. “We set up different things to make sure they were OK emotionally (because) dealing with secondary trauma can be very hard on some of the counselors.”

That kind of support is exactly what Dan King is trying to promote, 18 months after the May 22, 2011, tornado ripped through Joplin. King is chairman of the Emotional/Spiritual Subcommittee of Joplin’s Long-Term Recovery Committee, a collection of local agencies, organizations and faith-based groups that assists survivors with disaster-related needs.

As its name suggests, the subcommittee focuses on the emotional and spiritual well-being of the community, giving particular attention not only to the survivors of the tornado but also to those who have acted as their caregivers.

“We understand that basically everyone in Joplin was affected by the tornado, so we service wider than just those directly affected by the tornado,” King said. “We’re trying to do what we can to help that group (in the caregiver role).”

To help caregivers — such as counselors, church pastors and those volunteering with relief agencies — cope with their role in tornado recovery, the subcommittee has sponsored and assisted with a handful of seminars that have focused on dealing with fatigue, King said.

Even at the 18-month mark, committee members remain concerned about compassion fatigue, King said. Compassion fatigue, also called secondary traumatic stress disorder or burnout, can occur when caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, which can lead to destructive behaviors, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, a California-based organization.

King is keeping his eye on that group because it has been so instrumental in Joplin’s recovery over the past year and a half, he said. For example, individuals working with the Long-Term Recovery Committee, in which participation is voluntary and unpaid, assisted more than 9,000 families, served 47,000 meals and distributed 3,500 tons of goods to survivors in the year after the tornado.

“It’s just been amazing, the response and the amount of care that’s gone out and the amount of hours that local people have contributed and given to the effort,” King said. “It’s hard to talk about because you can’t imagine what it would be like without the caregivers. Especially the churches, what we call the faith-based community, have been a big part of the recovery.”

He’s talking about people like Lowell Lane, who dropped by the Joplin Family Worship Center just a few days after the tornado to ask pastor Daniel Wermuth how he could help. Wermuth said he knew of volunteers who were coming to Joplin to assist with relief efforts, but he had nowhere for them to stay.


“I just said, ‘Let me make a phone call because I think I have a place that will work,’” recalled Lane, who at the time was neither employed by the church nor a member there. “I think I came over and saw him around noon, and by 6 o’clock that night, I think we had nine people staying with us.”

Lane lives with his wife and children in Carthage, and was acting at the time as caretaker for two houses on their property. The larger house was uninhabited, sometimes rented as an event center and used by the Lanes’ bakery business.

He brought in 50 cots and created women’s and men’s dormitories. Within three days, he was housing 40 people, and the numbers continued to grow. He used the house as a shelter until Sept. 1, 2012, at which time he estimated more than 500 people had stayed there.

“That’s just what I do, is help people,” Lane said. “In the body of Christ, that’s what you’re supposed to do — treat your neighbor as yourself. I just wanted to help like so many others.”

Meanwhile, Lane was volunteering each day at the worship center, which had set up a large distribution center of goods and supplies for tornado survivors inside its sanctuary and was feeding as many as 800 people daily. He eventually joined the church’s staff to oversee those efforts, becoming the director of operations for the resource center.

Those days were long, he said. He woke by 5 a.m. to feed everyone staying at his shelter and then immediately went into Joplin to the church, often returning home in those first few months around midnight.

“In the initial time, I was here as much as — I hate to even think about that now,” Lane said. “I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep.”

Eighteen months later, his schedule has leveled off, although his job certainly hasn’t. He is in the kitchen most days to cook, helping to serve 1,149 meals to volunteers last month. He helps with the church’s distribution center, which last month provided food items and necessities to 325 families. He oversees the lodging of volunteers who continue to come to Joplin to help with the dozens of construction projects that the church has available.

And Lane expects to be in this mode through the end of 2013, he said.

“There is a lot going on,” he said. “I can’t do everything, so we’ve got someone who’s a supervisor that oversees distribution, and oversees the trailers and oversees the office. I’m still going to the (Long-Term Recovery Committee) meetings every week, and trying to do all that and stay on top of things. We just try to keep everybody going.”

Joan Wilson, of Joplin, also has been no stranger to throwing herself into caring for others. In the months after the tornado, she and her husband sometimes worked 24-hour days assisting relief groups through Mount Hope Church of Christ in Webb City. She also aided tornado-affected students through Crowder College, where she is a social work instructor at the Neosho and Webb City campuses.


Now that the adrenaline fueling those months has subsided, Wilson said, the mental and emotional well-being of the people who have been taking care of tornado survivors and relief volunteers ebbs and flows, similar to a roller-coaster ride.

“Eighteen months later, now we can take a breath, and we’re not used to taking a breath,” she said. “We’re not used to taking care of ourselves.”

Wilson said she thinks those in the caregiver role face a different set of struggles than survivors do. While survivors of the tornado might struggle with hearing the sirens or staying calm during a thunderstorm, Wilson said caregivers might struggle with what she calls a “loss of control” of their role as recovery moves forward.

“I think when you’re in that mode of helping people and you have a sense of helping people, and as people move on with their lives and move to the next level of recovery, I think it’s all of a sudden, ‘OK, I can go back to my life, but my life will never be the same,’” she said. “The helpers have been so much in the mood of helping other people (that) it’s really difficult for them to step back and help themselves.”

The Lafayette House has arranged for counseling sessions and, in some instances, has paid for additional professional help for staff members who might have needed it over the past 18 months, Oehring said. Members of the board of directors have organized potluck lunches, ice cream socials and other events “to let them know this extra hard work was definitely recognized and appreciated,” she said.

“It has really helped boost morale and just kind of keep them going,” she said. “For those people who work in the front lines, if they don’t get some kind of ‘refill,’ they’re not going to be able to give what they want to give to other people. We’ve really tried to support the staff because they have been working hard.”

As for Lane at the Joplin Family Worship Center, he said his role over the past 18 months hasn’t always been easy — it has eaten up a lot of his time, energy and resources — but when asked what keeps him going a year and a half later, he credits his faith.

“That’s just who I am,” he said. “I just dive right in — sink or swim. I’m keeping my head above water. I haven’t drowned yet.”

Tips for taking care of yourself

BE HONEST about your feelings and allow yourself to laugh or to cry when needed. Accept that both emotions are OK.

BE REALISTIC and set aside impractical expectations.

REACH OUT to others, whether they be friends and family members or the community at large.

PLANNING can make a difference. Pace yourself to conserve energy.

PRACTICE SAYING “NO.” Don’t take on too much or overextend yourself.

STAY HEALTHY and active.

SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP from the mental health or spiritual communities if you need additional support or guidance.

Source: Joan Wilson, with the Joplin Long-Term Recovery Emotional/Spiritual Committee