Coordination site provides structure as volunteers pitch in with tornado cleanup
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Hollie Tapley was as close to her Topeka home this week as she has been since the severe weather season started in the late winter.
“I’ve been on the road since March 14,” she said. “My team (has) been all over Kansas and Nebraska.”
Tapley is the disaster relief coordinator for the United Methodist Church Great Plains Conference of Kansas and Nebraska. Her job takes her and her team of volunteers to locations that have been struck by floods or tornadoes to coordinate volunteer cleanup efforts for local emergency management departments. She and her team have been working since Wednesday — the day after an EF-4 tornado blew through the area, leaving a 32-mile path of destruction — with the departments of Douglas and Leavenworth counties. The Douglas County volunteer coordination site is at the Lawrence First United Methodist Church West Campus, 867 U.S. Highway 40.
Tapley spent Wednesday and Thursday in Leavenworth County coordinating volunteer cleanup efforts in Linwood, which was heavily damaged, before joining the up-and-running Douglas County volunteer coordination site on Friday. The Great Plains UMC service is provided to counties at no cost, she said. The service offers a structured way for volunteers to help with the cleanup effort, and the clearly identified volunteers make it easy for officials to determine if people in storm-stricken areas are there to help or are just trying to sightsee or make off with storm-scattered valuables. Property owners can also call 785-832-5313 to arrange for volunteer help.
“It’s mostly debris removal,” Tapley said Saturday. “They help the homeowners clean up a little bit and recover some of their possessions. Today, we’re focusing on the area of North 1000 Road and (U.S.) Highway 59. That’s where we are sending most of the volunteers.”
At 10:45 a.m. Saturday, about 85 people had signed up to volunteer, Tapley said. That number was on track to match the 115 who volunteered Friday, she said.
Registering the volunteers is a coordinated effort that also involves volunteers with the Douglas County Emergency Management Department, such as Lori Greenfield, a teacher at Prairie Park Elementary in Lawrence.
“There’s a lot of teachers here,” she said in between taking information on the vehicles of volunteers. “We have a lot of free time right now,” a reference to school being out for summer.
Most of the volunteers are from Lawrence, but they come from near and far to help the tornado victims, Tapley said. They work from an hour to nine hours during a day, she said.
Tania Mahr, of Gardner, was one of those out-of-town volunteers.
“I was just horrified by all the destruction I saw on TV,” she said as she registered. “It was just a miracle no one was killed. I just wanted to help. I came over yesterday to help in my little way and returned today.”
Douglas County officials said Tuesday’s tornado injured 17 people, three of them seriously, and damaged more than 60 homes. At its peak, the twister was a mile wide and had wind speeds of 170 mph.
Volunteers are asked to sign a liability waiver, which protects the county and homeowners in the event the volunteers are injured. They are also given a badge that identifies them as registered volunteers and a marker to place in their vehicles, which allows them entry into blockaded areas.
Tapley provides the volunteers with lip balm, sunscreen and water before they depart for work sites. As a safety precaution against the nails, broken glass and other skin-puncturing hazards that litter work sites, volunteers also can get a free tetanus shot that Heart to Heart International provides.
Volunteers are asked to check back in at the coordination site after finishing a day’s shift to return vehicle registration markers and to report the number of hours worked.
“We keep track of volunteer hours because they are money,” Tapley said. “If there is a federal disaster declaration, the county can turn those hours in.”
Tapley said she and the Great Plains volunteer center would be open from 12:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday at the First UMC West Campus. That could be the last day she and the Great Plains volunteers are in Douglas County before moving on to their next storm-ravaged stop.
“We’ll stay longer if the county requests it for Monday,” she said. “We’ll play it by ear.”