Special Needs and Tornadoes: A Joplin Story

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It’s been almost two years since a devastating tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri, and the community continues to rebuild.  Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to visit Joplin to learn more about The Independent Living Center -Joplin (TILC), one of seven programs chosen as a promising example of FEMA’s Whole Community Approach to emergency management.  TILC is a nonprofit organization providing a variety of services and resources to help individuals with disabilities live independently in their own homes.  Some of these services include advocacy and support, in-home care, medical equipment provision, and development of emergency preparedness plans to meet their clients’ special needs.

While in Joplin, we met 29-year-old Shandie Reed Johnson, a past client of TILC and now an employee of TILC working as an administrative assistant.  Her ability to walk is impaired due to a life-long battle with rheumatoid arthritis.  Shandie shares a firsthand account of how the 2011 tornado affected her, the lessons she has learned, and how TILC is helping her heal.

The Independent Living Center (TILC) in Joplin, MO.

Tell us about rheumatoid arthritis and describe your relationship with TILC.

I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) on my 9th birthday.  From that point in my life to this very day, my mother has been by my side, through every surgery and treatment.  Over the years, my arthritis has continued to get worse and has damaged my body.  I’ve had both hips completely replaced and many other joints fused.  

When I was diagnosed with JRA, I was automatically rendered 100% disabled.  We were told that I would never be able to drive – I do. I would not be able to walk by age 18 – I do.  I would never be able to hold a job – I do.  I am able to do these things because TILC provided me with the necessary medical equipment and support to live independently.  I’ve been with TILC for 10 years and have used their services, but now I am a part-time administrative assistant at TILC.   Following the tornado, TILC provided a tremendous amount of support to me and other clients.  They called all their clients in the path of the tornado to check on them, provided counseling services, and helped clients refurnish their homes from tornado damage. My role as an employee at TILC, as well as on the receiving end of services, has given me a unique perspective and appreciation of TILC.

Where were you at the time of the tornado?

Our 105-year-old house was located on the northwest corner of 25th and Pennsylvania, right in the path of the tornado.  My family was at home that afternoon and like any normal evening, my mother was cooking dinner, my nieces were playing in the house, and my dad had just arrived home from running errands.  I was on the couch watching the Weather Channel.  We were having severe storms, which is not unusual for that time of year.  I have heard tornado sirens many times throughout my life living in Joplin, so this evening was not unfamiliar.

I remember hearing sirens for a second time, so my dad walked outside to look.  He turned around immediately and I saw his face turn to horror as he began to scream for us to get downstairs.  He screamed for me to get down, but due to my disability I was unable to.  My dad grabbed me and pulled me down to the concrete basement floor.   My ears started to pop repeatedly, and I heard a lot of crashing and screaming.   It sounded like a jet engine was on top of us.  I felt myself being pulled across the basement floor and things were hitting and landing on top of me.

Shandie's home before and after the tornado.

How has the tornado affected your family?

May 22nd changed our lives forever.  Apparently the first floor of our two-story home had collapsed on top of us, along with parts of other  homes and belongings.  I remember I had an artificial Christmas tree and a large, rolled-up area rug on top of me.  All around me were large boards and parts of the flooring from other houses.  It looked as if a bomb had gone off.  I don’t know how we survived it, but luckily, we did.

We were renting our home at the time of the disaster and did not have renters insurance.  Prior to the tornado, my dad was diagnosed with diabetes. Two days after the tornado, he contracted an infection in his feet from walking in water the night of the tornado.  He has now lost half of one foot and half of one leg and cannot work anymore.

My parents ended up renting a small two bedroom house, which is where they live now while they wait on the completion of their new home, which was donated by our church. There is not much room in the rented house, so I do a lot of “couch surfing.”  The home I am in now is not disability-friendly.

In addition to all of that, I now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Hearing a siren will trigger a panic attack.  When I’m triggered, I go into a zombie-like mode and shut down.  The healing process has been ongoing for all of us.

How has TILC made a difference in your life?

It is very difficult to explain because I’ve been through so much before and after the tornado.  TILC has been an abundance of help all across the board.  I’ve been affiliated with TILC for a while, so I have developed a very personal relationship with them.  TILC has provided me with tools and resources like walkers, a portable ramp, and wheelchairs to help me live independently.

After the tornado, I was wearing the same clothes for several days because I had lost everything. The staff at TILC noticed this and unexpectedly gave me a gift card to buy new clothes.  They also provide me with counseling services to help me cope with the PTSD I developed.  When my dad was released from the hospital after contracting the infection, he still had an IV in his arm and had to travel a far distance every day for treatment.  TILC learned what was happening and pooled together their personal funds to pay for gas to get him to and from the hospital.  They help without a second thought. That is why I love working for them.

Has your experience made you better prepared now?

I’m much more alert, informed, and prepared.  I’m very cautious, especially with tornadoes.   I have gathered a weather radio, water, food and other emergency supplies.  We have a family emergency plan, and our new home will have an inner “safe room,” reinforced with steel and concrete. 

What is your advice to people as they prepare for future tornadoes or other disasters?

Shandie Reed Johnson hard at work at TILC.

There are a lot of things people can learn from a situation like this, and everyone is different.  For me, it is to never ignore a weather siren, have a family emergency plan in place, and cherish life. For people with mobility issues, it’s really important to have a preparedness plan.  Even those who have an in-home care attendant need to have a plan on how they will evacuate or seek shelter on their own.  During an emergency, you can’t count on anybody to be able to come to your house and help you.

Another lesson I’ve learned is spiritual in nature. I’ve realized how precious life is and how meaningless belongings are.  For those experiencing the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I want them to know not to lose hope or feel discouraged.

A big thank you to Shandie Reed Johnson for sharing her experience with us and helping us better understand the role TILC has in her life. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

The Independent Living Center -Joplin (TILC)has been recognized by CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Responses’ (OPHPR) Learning Office and the CDC Foundation as a community effort that reflects and embodies FEMA’s Whole Community approach to emergency management. Follow The Independent Living Center Joplin on Facebook to learn more.
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Page last reviewed: March 4, 2013
Page last updated: March 4, 2013