(You are reading the unedited version of my November 3rd submission to the Park University Stylus. It’s my first major article, and has been my favorite interview to date. Editor’s version upcoming.)
Paul Kimble, 47, is a Park University student, he’s had extensive experience volunteering in the Joplin tornado disaster, he’s a radio operator and he watches storms. “Some of these fools are downright nuts. Well, If you want to hunt Godzilla…”
Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt for what is just another day at Park, Kimble is currently a business major. He speaks sharply. He has a voice trained for broadcast, it gets information across quickly. “My name is Paul Kimble, My amateur radio callers are Double-ya B-0-Y-B-U. I’m a student here at Park. I recently retired from a factory job. I am trained as a storm spotter, which means we’ll go to a preassigned area, with our binoculars and our radio equipment, and we will watch, pray we don’t see anything. Considering what we’re looking for.”
Trained by the National Weather service he is the logistics officer of the Emergency Communications Service of Eastern Jackson County which on top of spotting tornadoes, would assist in the event of a disaster. This is nothing new to him, in May of 2011 he found himself volunteering in Joplin, Missouri.
“I was deployed with a group called Samaritan’s Purse about a week after it happened. They sent us out with wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes. We turned the debris fields back into yards. It’s not as good as when they were houses, but it’s a start.”
A communications expert, Kimble explains how during Katrina, the national weather service first learned of problems with cell towers and emergency lines during “shit hits the fan situations.” “When cell towers are flattened and weed whacked, when they’re buried under 9 feet of floodwater, you pretty much have firefighters passing along handwritten notes and that’s it.”
In Joplin the story was different. “Many of the towers were still standing, but they were at full capacity. With four percent of the population on the phone at the same time everything would be working fine, but with 60% rushing to get contact, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re pretty much talking to yourself.”
When he was volunteering, Kimble explains how he wasn’t alone in the sea of volunteers. “There were a lot of people bringing a lot of help. One of the problems you have when you’ve got a disaster like that, is you’re going to have random volunteers coming in. Heavy on compassion, light on common sense, and even lighter on training, they can cause as much damage as the tornado.”
The stories he has from the event are numerous. “There were 18 wheelers being tossed around like tonka toys. The big hospital they had there, it was shoved about 4 or 5 feet off of it’s foundation. Steel and concrete reinforced building shoved off of it’s foundation. You don’t think of a building as something you can move.”
When the tornado ripped through Joplin with it’s billions in damage, some of the details shocked even Kimble. “Supposedly there was a fungus, described to me as something similar to a fleshing eating disease. That probably killed more people than the tornado. It was a complication that finished off many of the injured people, that were exposed to it.”
When asked about the refugees he says “For the most part neighboring areas absorbed them to help out. There were shelters for a while, but honestly they weren’t needed very long because for the most part, the people down there took care of themselves.” While he describes old friendships being rekindled and communities banding together not all relationships were positive ones.
With a huge looting problem, many of the looters coming in from out of town to take advantage of the situations, Kimble found the locals had a simple straightforward solution. “You catch the looter, you beat the crap out of him, you tie him to a tree, you mark the work ‘Looter’ to him in permanent marker on his forehead.” From what he heard, police and those in charge of bail didn’t have any compassion for the thieves. There was a back channel agreement. “let ‘em rot. No pity for ‘em.”
“They’re still rebuilding” he says, reflecting on his experiences with the disaster. “They suffered almost 2 billion in property damage, 161 dead, about 10,00 homes destroyed, 800 businesses destroyed, god only knows what happened to all the cars. I have no idea how many hundreds were injured.” Years later with tornadoes in Branson and elsewhere, Kimble heard that Joplin locals organized special teams to repay the debt. “You helped us, let us help you.”
With all he had seen, reflecting on his time in Joplin and on the subject of disasters in general he closes on this. “When stuff hits the fan, never underestimate the capacity for people to rise to the occasion. Either as saints or scoundrels.”