Area worker describes scenes from Joplin as ‘heartbreaking’

Thursday, May 26, 2011

By Scott Moyers ~ Southeast Missourian

When Mark Skinner’s truck crested a hill Tuesday, it brought into full view the carnage that now occupies much of Joplin, Mo.

The eviscerated houses and stores. Trees ripped to shreds. Cars stacked on top of one another.

And, perhaps most heart-wrenching, the haggard groups of twos and threes tirelessly sifting through the rubble in search of lost loved ones who may never make it home.

“It was just utter devastation,” Skinner said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “You just can’t imagine how bad it is. The photos from the news just don’t do it justice. You see the path and there’s just nothing left.”

He paused for a long moment, searching for the words. In the end, he simply repeated himself.

“There’s nothing left.”

Skinner, a Cape Girardeau County resident, and nine other city public works and water division employees are spending the better part of a week in Joplin. The first five left Monday and the second group left Tuesday, bringing along two dump trucks, a backhoe, excavator and hand-held tools to help with the work. Eight work for the city of Cape Girardeau; the other two — including Skinner — work for Alliance Water Resources, which subcontracts work for the city to manage its water system.

The scene in Joplin has been stark. The town was sliced in half Sunday by a tornado, the single deadliest storm in 60 years that left has left at least 123 dead and more than 1,500 missing.

Seeing the wreckage on the news is one thing, but Skinner is seeing the destruction firsthand as he and the others work to remove massive debris from roads and ditches that was launched there by 200 mph winds. Throughout the day, they hear stories of dead bodies found not too far from where they work. They see firefighters and canine units continuing search-and-rescue efforts that so far had only led to six people found still alive.

The radio doesn’t even offer respite as the stations continue to rattle off the names of the missing and impassioned pleas for them to contact their desperate loved ones.

“We helped out when tornadoes hit Caruthersville and Jackson,” he said. “But they were nothing like this. This is like nothing we’ve ever experienced.”

Upon arrival, Joplin officials warned them to be on the lookout for bodies.

When asked if they’d come across any personally, Skinner said, “No, and I hope we don’t,” he said.

Public Works director Tim Gramling said Joplin officials contacted the city Sunday night immediately following the tornado requesting assistance. Gramling said the city would be reimbursed by the state for any costs it incurs, but the objective was trying to lend a hand to one of Missouri’s sister cities.

When Gramling asked for volunteers to go to Joplin, more employees raised their hands than were needed. He also said that, with tornadoes threatening closer to home, the number of workers in Joplin wouldn’t create a large problem if something were to happen here.

“It would be less people to draw from, but we’d have enough to at least initially get started on anything we needed done,” Gramling said.

With the 10 workers gone, that leaves a pool of 40 to 50 people to work, Gramling said.

It’s uncertain if more workers will need to be sent to Joplin after this crew returns home, Gramling said, but they have no shortage of volunteers to set up a rotating system if need be.

“We want to do everything we can to help,” Gramling said. “If something like that were to happen here, we’d be looking for help, too.”

Meanwhile, Skinner and the others are hard at work, pulling 13-hour shifts and grabbing what little sleep at Missouri Southern University dorm rooms. But Skinner said the crews don’t mind.

“That’s the reason we came out, to lend a hand where we can,” he said. “We want to make their lives a little easier, if it’s even in just some small way. There has been an outpouring of support. But it’s just a wide devastated area with a lot of problems. It’s been a real eye-opening and heartbreaking experience.”