How lessons learned from the Joplin tornado are shaping COVID pandemic responses

JOPLIN, Mo. – It’s been exactly nine years since the Joplin tornado that put the disaster plans of many agencies into action. Now, the area faces another kind of disaster in the form of a health pandemic. We spoke with the City of Joplin and Freeman Health System to find out what they’ve learned since 2011 that’s helping them now.

It’s been nine years since the EF-5 tornado tore a mile wide swath of destruction across Joplin and into Duquesne. It was a tough road to recovery, and many lessons have been learned since that day. Emergency Manager Keith Stammer says “One of the things that’s changed since 2011 is we do a lot more online, we use to meet physically in the Emergency Operations Center, now, our EOC is actually online so everyone can talk to each other regardless of location.”

Stammer says that was one very important change, to ensure the emergency team could stay connected during any kind of disaster, even, a health one. “We have and have had a very good pandemic response plan, the problem with everyone one of those plans is you don’t know what the pandemic is going to be.”

Stammer says they’re continuing to learn even now and will be looking at the response as time goes on to develop an even better pandemic response plan. Freeman Health System had to put their disaster plan into effect nine years ago. Skip Harper with Freeman Health System says “These disaster happen without notice, you have to be prepared and ready to respond whether it’s an individual case or if it’s a mass casualty case like we saw with the Joplin tornado.”

But with COVID-19, Harper says they had some heads up when reports were coming in about what was happening in China. “COVID-19 allowed us time to look at a different scenario than we had really in the past, so we spent weeks ahead of time preparing and, we spent weeks ahead of time trying to prepare just not locally, but regionally and across the state.”

Harper says since that time, they’ve made other significant changes. “After the tornado we spent a tremendous amount of resources and time developing our own emergency communications system, we now have the ability to call up a satellite truck to provide internet services, telephone services, radio contact, we can maintain communication with the state 24 hours a day, that we didn’t have before the tornado, and communication is the number one vital thing you need for any disaster.”

Harper says Freeman also has mobile response trailers with the ability to offer some medical services in the field, in case of another disaster.