On the Sunday evening of May 22, Bruce Bailey, founder of the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team, had just arrived at a barbecue in Kansas City with his colleagues and buddies.
A few moments later, his cell phone lit up. A powerful tornado had just touched down in Joplin, leaving enormous wreckage in its path.
Bailey immediately mobilized his Emergency Response Team. Within hours, his team of AmeriCorps members left St. Louis, driving through the night to Joplin. They arrived at 2:30 am, and three hours later they had established a call center for missing persons.
Since those first frantic hours, 180 AmeriCorps members from across the country have come to Joplin, where they have managed the volunteer reception center, supported the police department with missing-person inquires, operated a collection and sorting warehouse, removed debris, and managed a large-scale volunteer operation that has registered more than 37,000 people who have performed more than 111,000 hours of volunteer work.
The response by AmeriCorps and volunteers from around the country is emblematic of the spirit of the American people running towards trouble, not away from it, when disaster strikes. From the Johnstown flood of 1889 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ordinary citizens have always been among the first on the scene, eager to save lives, comfort those in pain and begin the long, hard work of recovery.
The untold story behind this natural urge to serve is the fact that people who volunteer need to be properly managed for maximum impact and for their own safety. That is the unique value of the AmeriCorps team in Joplin. On June 4, I went there myself to see our team in action.
I will never forget what I saw. In addition to the loss of more than 150 lives and 8,000 homes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency lead in Joplin told me that there is more wreckage in the town than there was at Ground Zero after Sept. 11, 2001. Removing the debris will take months, even with trucks running 24 hours per day, seven days a week, at a rate of three trucks per minute.
As stunning as that magnitude might be, the response has been equally stunning. People from near and far have come to help — students, veterans, retirees and members of faith-based organizations. But, those volunteers can only be effective if they are properly trained, managed and protected.
Imagine showing up at a disaster site armed only with a desire to help. Joplin volunteers are encountering everything from rusty nails to 95-degree heat to loose electrical wires and hazardous dust. AmeriCorps members make sure these volunteers are registered, deployed, supervised, given safety training and assigned to help residents who are most in need.
AmeriCorps has been in the disaster response business since its inception in 1994 and many of the lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina and subsequent disasters are being put to use in Joplin and elsewhere.
In the last six months alone, along with leading recovery efforts in Missouri, AmeriCorps members have coordinated the deployment of thousands of volunteers in response to floods throughout the Midwest, tornadoes in Alabama and Massachusetts, and forest fires in Colorado.
As the response to these disasters proves, the desire of Americans to help those in need is ever present. We also know that AmeriCorps members often are among the first on the scene, helping to transform that instinct to help into effective action.
The indispensable role they play is gaining increasing recognition. At a June 6 press conference in Joplin, Gov. Jay Nixon said, "AmeriCorps has played a really lead role in making sure that volunteers have come in and have tasks at hand that are safe and doable and have handled an incredible volume of volunteers."
A few days ago, the people of Joplin joined the country in celebrating the 235th birthday of our nation. For them and for all of us, this July 4th was a reminder of all that is best about America.
We are a nation forged out of the depths of oppression. Faced with what seemed like insurmountable obstacles, America has risen to become the world's great light of freedom. AmeriCorps members are a wonderful expression of that spirit. Our pledge to the people of Joplin is embodied in the AmeriCorps oath: "Faced with adversity, I will persevere….I am an AmeriCorps member and I will get things done."
John Gomperts is director of AmeriCorps, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.