About 200 emergency response experts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency traveled to Joplin, Mo., last week to help with the recovery effort after the devastating tornado there. Among them was Deputy Administrator Rich Serino, who got on a
plane last Monday morning and helped with the rescue effort for four days. Serino wrote a moving post on the agency’s blog about his experience, which included a real-life emergency shelter plan in the aftermath. The Post chatted with him late Friday.
Q: What was the scene like in Joplin when you arrived?
A: None of the [state and loca] emergency crews had slept all night and there was an adrenaline rush at that point. We drove around with the fire chief. As far as you could see, there was complete devastation. Trees were just gone. There was no vegetation and no houses. There was a lot of debris.We drove past a fire house. There was a pumper truck that was just destroyed. There was a van wrapped around a tree. That was a common sight. You didn’t see a vehicle that wasn’t completely damaged or destroyed.
Q: You had flown to the Gulf coast just recently to respond to the tornadoes there. Can you compare the experiences?
A. It’s very difficult to compare these things. If it’s one family that lost everything, their lives have changed forever.
Q. What is FEMA’s role in responding to a tornado like this?
A. FEMA is really just part of the team. We're there to support the governor and his team, the police and fire department, the entire regional response.We bring in additional people. And we’ll be there for the long haul. It’s going to take months, maybe years to rebuild their schools, fire stations, hospitals. I’ll definitely be back.
Q. You spoke to many of the families who lost their homes, and many who lost friends and family members. What was that like?
A. I talked to a lot of the survivors. What struck me is how resilient they were. These are people who have nothing left of their house but the foundation, and yet, they said they felt good because nobody in their family died or was injured.
Q. You wrote in your blog post about an unexpected experience testing the local emergency response system in Kansas City, where you stopped at FEMA’s regional office on your way to a speaking engagement at a national conference of disaster-response groups. Talk about what happened.
A. I had been there a couple of hours when the weather suddenly became very unstable. The next thing I knew, FEMA staff alerted me that there were possible tornadoes nearby. We needed to move to a safe area in the building. I’m born and raised in Boston, where we have blizzards and a lot of other stuff, but not tornados.
But they knew exacatly what to do.They had about 140 employees there. I asked ‘How often does this happen’ and they said it never had happened! They decided to have an all-hands meeting while we were waiting.
Six blocks away the tornado touched down. There was minimal damage where I was, but a lot in the next county over.
It was great to see that our folks practiced what we as an agency preach to the public, which is to be prepared.
Q. What made you decide to blog about your visit to Joplin?
A. I’ve written a few times for the blog after helping with the response effort for other storms and flooding. I’m not what you call the perfect blogger, but it’s important as an agency to do this, to tell the public and our staff what’s going on. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from the staff saying thanks for being there.