Almost two weeks after a massive tornado decimated Joplin, Mo., the recovery process has begun, but there’s a long way to go.
At least 134 people were killed in the May 22 storm; more than 8,000 homes and apartments were damaged or destroyed; more than 500 commercial properties were damaged or destroyed. As crews begin removing tons of debris from the area, a smaller group is working to reunite lost pets with their owners.
Jennifer Whitter of St. Louis (@jenn_if_er on Twitter) loaded her car with pet supplies and donations and headed 280 miles southwest to Joplin last weekend to volunteer with the Joplin Humane Society.
"It was the most rewarding experience of my life," said Whitter, who assisted with office work, helped clean cages and care for animals, and assigned duties to other volunteers. "I’ll never forget the people I met, specifically Annie, Abbie and Allison. I’m sure I’ll never see most of the people I worked with again, but they all made an impact on my life.
"What impressed me the most was the spirit of the people of Joplin. Some of the families I met this weekend lost everything, and some had lost a loved one, and yet they were more thankful and gracious than anyone I had ever met," Whitter said. "I couldn’t count the number of times people thanked me for being there or the number of people who told me that Joplin will be better than ever after this. If I were in their shoes, I’m not certain I would have the same positive attitude.
"I also saw firsthand just how resilient animals are. One poor guy had to have one of his front legs amputated because of a severe injury. That very same night, he was running around like nothing even happened."
While they are the most common, it’s not just dogs and cats that have found their way to the Joplin Humane Society. “While I was there, we took in rabbits, ferrets, hermit crabs, 42 chickens, three goldfish, a hawk and a boa constrictor,” Whitter said.
Joplin Humane Society and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals volunteers assign identification numbers to each recovered pet, and photograph it. The photos are then posted on the humane society’s website and Facebook page.
"When people come in looking for their pet, they are first directed to the emergency shelters that have been set up to house the non-injured pets. If their pet is not in the emergency shelter, they are directed next door to the JHS where all of the injured pets are being kept."
Volunteers are still bringing lost pets to the shelter; families who have not found their pets are encouraged to check back regularly. Pets and families are being reunited daily — sometimes hourly. Around noon today, Desiree Morris posted a note on the JHS Facebook page that her cat had been found: “My fiance just got a call from the Humane Society,” she wrote. “They found my Freya! I’m so flippin’ happy I’m crying. He’s going straight to Joplin to pick her up today.”
While in Joplin, Whitter adopted a dog of her own — a 3-year-old miniature dachshund she has named Jasper. (Joplin is located in Jasper County.)
"He’s a dog that had been at JHS for awhile, just waiting to find a forever home," Whitter said. "I saw him the first time I walked through the shelter but didn’t get a chance to play with him until Monday. I got him out his cage and immediately knew he was coming to St. Louis with me."
The Joplin Humane Society is still seeking monetary donations to help house and care for injured animals. To donate, visit joplinhumane.org, or text SAVEPETS to 20222 to donate $10. Donations also can be made at the Humane Society of Missouri website, hsmo.org; by calling 314-951-1542; or in-person at any Humane Society of Missouri location: Locally, 1201 Macklind Ave., S. Louis; 2400 Drilling Service Road, Maryland Heights; 17357 Edison Avenue, Chesterfield.
Officials say the group has been overwhelmed with spontaneous supply donations and volunteers; anyone who wishes to donate supplies or volunteer in Joplin is asked to call the United Way’s 2-1-1 line or visit 211missouri.org first.
"Joplin is going to need support for months and months to come," Whitter said. "Right now, we are all very aware of what’s going on there, but I’m afraid that in the weeks and months ahead people will forget. Volunteers will be needed for a long time, so please consider contacting one of the the many disaster-relief organizations and helping out.
"I promise you won’t regret it."