Commentary: Tornado underlines importance of preparedness

Courtesy photo 1st Lt. David Stuckenberg, a pilot in the 3rd Special Operations Squadron at Cannon, holds a cat found in the rubble on May 24. Lt. Stuckenberg facilitated a relief convoy to Joplin, Mo., as soon as he was notified that the tornado destroyed his hometown.

By 1st Lt. David Stuckenberg: 3rd Special Operations Squadron

At 5:55 p.m. Sunday, May 22, I received a phone call from my brother. He told me that our family home in Joplin, Mo., had just been hit by a tornado. Ironically, at 6 p.m. I was scheduled to speak at my church in Portales about disaster preparedness. As I spoke, I could see my wife on the phone trying to find out if her parents were still alive. Later we would find out they were in the home when it was hit, but they survived in the bathtub. They had to crawl through debris to escape from the rubble.

After arriving home later that evening, I made calls for the next few hours. With the help of Chief Master Sgt. Gary Glover from the 3rd Special Operations Squadron here and others, I was able to raise support for a convoy that would leave the next morning to deliver supplies. Also ironically, I happened to be on leave for the next ten days. By early morning, we had collected over 15,000 pounds of materials from local hardware and grocery stores and from the Clovis Veterans of Foreign Wars. The items included shovels, saws, work tools, plastic sheeting, diapers, baby wipes, laundry detergent, and three pallets of bottled water.

The community quickly supported our mission, and they deserve recognition for their short call to action. Thanks to the help of folks like Chief Master Sgt. John O’Dell, who allowed us to use his cargo trailer, and my church, Trinity Assembly of God, which provided trucks and drivers, the mission was a success. This is an example of the best on our base and in the surrounding community. While en route to Joplin on the 10-hour drive, with three trucks and cargo trailers packed to the breaking point, we received several calls requesting quick delivery of our supplies. There was no power or water for a 30-mile radius around Joplin.

We arrived Monday night to chaos. Most of the streets were closed and debris was everywhere. Heavy traffic impeded the delivery of supplies and streets that were usually several lanes wide were down to one lane. It took two hours for the relief convoy to move two miles. During this time, I received a call from the chief of police who had heard our supplies were on the way. I asked him what needed most and he said, “water, we have no water.”

I told him we had three pallets of bottled water. Then he thanked us and offered us an escort. The effectiveness of a fast and nimble response to disaster cannot be overstated. The supplies we brought were put to immediate use.

The next day, after visiting a pile of rubble that was once my family’s home, I accompanied my father-in-law, a councilman for the city of Duquesne, Mo., to a meeting. When we arrived at city hall, the city government was in chaos. Ninety-five percent of the town, which is mostly residential, had suffered damage. After a meeting with city officials, the mayor asked me to support the chief of police by organizing relief logistics, cleanup and volunteers.

There was an urgent need for volunteers, so I contacted my former United States Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps unit, Detachment 440, at the University of Missouri. Commander Lt. Col. Wayne Doherty sent a statewide email to all detachments requesting Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force cadets assist. Detachment 440 provided cadet volunteers and they sent 12 handheld two-way radios. Thanks to his help, and under the direction of the chief of police, I was able to organize and direct the efforts of over 300 volunteers for seven days to conduct search and recovery, damage assessment, traffic control, salvage efforts, food delivery and logistic operations.

The philosopher Aesop said, “against danger it pays to be prepared.” This common sense applies to disasters as well. Last year the director of Federal Emergency Management Agency said, “the term 100-year event has lost its meaning.” We must be aware that the increased frequency of disasters applies to everyone, regardless of where you live or who you are. Unfortunately, our advanced technology does not remove us from the fury of nature. And like many, I have always observed disasters from afar. But having been closely affected by this event, two important things stand out: Never underestimate the importance of a rapid response, and never underestimate the importance of preparation, because we are all at risk. The only way to prepare for a disaster is to have a plan.