by Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
Faithe Colas, community relations director for the Milwaukee County Salvation Army wasn’t afraid when she arrived with the organization’s response team in Joplin, Missouri hours after that city was hit by what some described as the “mother of all tornadoes.”
“I wasn’t afraid. I was just shocked and moved by what I saw,” Colas said reflecting on her 12-day experience working with Salvation Army responders from around the country providing food, shelter, clothing and emotional and spiritual counseling to the victims of the tornado, which killed 150 people and destroyed 6,000 homes.
The Salvation Army (SA) is often among the first on the scene when a natural or man-made disaster strikes until the service is no longer needed. SA officers are trained to meet all kinds of emergencies. The organization’s disaster canteens have become familiar sights to firemen, policemen and victims alike.
Colas served as the public information officer on the ground providing information about the Salvation’s Army’s efforts in Joplin to local and national media. Her position was part of the response team’s command staff.
She was recommended from a national short list of SA directors of communication to be part of a disaster response command staff. “I was excited and honored to be selected to serve at a national level,” Colas said during a recent interview.
Colas said the Salvation Army’s efforts in a disaster area are divided into two phases. Phase one is the response assessing and meeting the need for shelter, food, clothing and first aid. This phase includes clean-up and emergency communication.
Once those needs have been met and the situation is deemed stable, phase two—long term disaster recovery—kicks in, which involves restoration and rebuilding, social and financial services, as well as in-kind donation management, which is the collecting, sorting and distribution of donated goods.
The first response team (phase one) which Cola’s was a part of was succeeded by a team that would enact the aforementioned phase of recovery and rebuilding.
According to Joplin officials, it will take six years to rebuild.
“As a country, we’re doing well to have an organization that knows how to go in, set up and be prepared to deal with a disaster,” Colas said.
Colas said she had no preconceived ideas of what awaited her in Joplin having worked with disaster response teams in Heartland, Wisconsin two years ago after a tornado struck that town and last year’s Patrick Cudahy factory fire and city flooding.
But Colas admits to being awed by what she saw, repeating the observation of one of the SA response team members. He told her the disaster area reminded him of the Japanese city of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it near the end of WWII.
“Words don’t fit to describe it,” said Colas recalling what she saw in Joplin. “Unless you have a visual, you can’t imagine what I witnessed.”
However, Colas believes being in Joplin and helping the tornado victims—listening to their stories and sympathizing with their pain and loss, both human and material—has made her not only a better person, but gave her a greater understanding of disasters.
“Not a day went by that I didn’t cry,” Colas said. When she wasn’t crying, she was busy handling communications and media requests. The last four days of her deployment was spent at the actual site of the devastation.
There she greeted people awaiting service and treatment at the Oasis set up by the Salvation Army. Whenever she did steal a moment to herself, she couldn’t help but feel a well of emotion at what she was seeing.
Because of the emotional and mental toil working in a disaster area can take on the human psyche, the Salvation Army provides counseling for disaster workers to help them deal with their experiences and feelings.
“We were debriefed when we returned home by emotional/spiritual care officers,” Colas elaborated. “They help us to detach and go back to life in the respective cities we live.
At no time while in Joplin did Colas yearn for the comforts of home. “I didn’t once think of going home,” she said. “I thought of the people in Joplin who went through this (the tornado) and people at home who could help.”
When she finally did step through the threshold of her Milwaukee home, everything looked brand new. “I was so absorbed in the 12 days on the job, it felt like I was there (in Joplin) longer than I was.”
Even now when she has a quiet moment, Colas said she thinks her time in Joplin and he people she met whose lives were altered by disaster.
“Those memories will be with me until I’m no longer here.”
For more information as to how you can help the citizens of Joplin, go to samilwaukee.org