Out of destruction….

photo(3) - Version 2On May 21, one day after an EF5 level tornado ripped through central Oklahoma —leveling homes and killing 23 people — American Red Cross Eastern Virginia Region Director of Donor and Media Relations Jonathan McNamara (’05) boarded a plane for Oklahoma City. His assignment was to provide assistance as attaché to the region’s overburdened disaster relief unit. Severe weather cancelled Jon’s direct flight, forcing him to fly to Dallas and drive 200 miles to Red Cross basecamp in Moore, Okla., 11 miles south of the state capital. His deployment lasted nine days. Once Jon had a chance to breathe, he talked to JMU Alumni Association’s James Irwin (’06) about what it’s like in the aftermath of a destructive storm.

Hope from help

By Jonathan McNamara (’05) as told to the JMU Alumni Association’s James Irwin (’06)

I don’t think anyone can prepare for the images we saw in these neighborhoods. You couldn’t tell where one house was supposed to end and a new house began. You had things that were really difficult to process, especially when you would see cars where cars didn’t belong — washing machines, boats, garages … all these things in places you don’t expect.

Hundreds of volunteers were pouring into the area and I was assigned as part of a public affairs team for Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant and his teammates. Two hours earlier Durant had given a $1 million donation to the relief effort. We visited with a local CBS affiliate doing a telethon and then we toured a neighborhood devastated by the storm.

I really got to see what it means to have a guy like Durant be engaged in the response to a disaster like this. People were incredibly grateful for relief assistance from the Red Cross and Salvation Army and other volunteers, but more than that they truly were grateful that someone would take the time to walk through and see how they were doing. It almost served as a pressure-relief valve for these people who had some incredibly difficult days ahead of them. It really touched Durant and brought a personal level to his donation.

Jon McNamara (third from right) and NYC's Disaster Response Team

Jon McNamara (third from right) and NYC’s Disaster Response Team

I had a chance to go through neighborhoods with an elite group of Red Cross volunteers called the “Disaster Assistance Response Team” — part of the New York City fire department. These are firefighters who lived through 9/11 and have dedicated their lives to provide help for communities — they were in Joplin after the tornado and in Boston after the bombings. When we walked through the neighborhoods, to see the joy not only on the faces receiving the assistance but to see the joy on the faces of the firefighters … it was a pretty remarkable sight.

What you start to see, after you get used to the sights and sounds and smells — people are burning debris — is you notice countless examples of small acts of kindness. You see a person sift through rubble for days trying to find baseball cards or family photos. We found a football player from the University of Oklahoma who was looking for his conference championship ring. And they would just stop, because they would see someone next door dealing with the same things, and they would walk over and help that other person for three, four, five hours.

I met a few kids in a neighborhood in Bethel Acres who really got into the process of making this short video we were creating for the Red Cross. What took me aback was I realized that probably was the first fun thing they had done since 16 minutes before the storm, when the first warnings came through. Then there was a lady who drove from Louisiana and made homemade beef stew all day for people. She had driven through the night because she said she couldn’t imagine people going hungry during something like this. There were truly incredible acts of selflessness everywhere you looked.

You know, your first thought after something like this is to feel bad. When I would ask people what they want others to know about this, to a person they would say they wanted people to heed the lessons of disaster preparation, because the ones who did fared significantly better than the ones who didn’t.

photo(2)One of the things I’ve always loved is the idea of an engaged community trying to make the world a better place — and that’s such a key part of the JMU educational experience. I was one of numerous JMU grads who played a role in responding to this Oklahoma disaster. Heather Robertson (’10) in Roanoke was involved, and Adrienne Alberts (’95) is in our D.C. headquarters and was part of our national response effort. I think the work I’m doing now and the skills I developed are a testament to my JMU and School of Media Arts education. I don’t think I did anything extraordinary; I just did my job.

Jon McNamara returned to Richmond on May 30. His flight left just prior to another band of storms striking the region, causing more damage in Oklahoma, and in Texas and Arkansas. Relief efforts in Moore and surrounding communities are ongoing. To contribute visit http://www.redcross.org.

If you’d like to see Jon in action and learn more about those who helped in the aftermath of the tornado, visit some of the following videos Jon helped produce while he was in Oklahoma:

Joplin and the best things in life

Information can shake you in your boots and then again it can absolve your fears. And sometimes, it’s a catalyst for action.

Last night as the news from Joplin, Mo., unfolded after a tornado tore a six-mile hole through the heart of the city about dinner time, I immediately scoured the Internet for information because I have a cousin who lives in Joplin. The scope of the devastation hadn’t yet made it to television news. Producers, I’m sure, were scrambling to bring it to viewers, but I couldn’t wait. I was worried about Sarah and her family.  I found her house on Google maps and then tried plotting the path of the tornado through the neighborhood with what information I could glean from local news outlets, weather sites and Twitter feeds. Most of the destruction was along Ridgeline Road and north of the I-41.  That was encouraging; Sarah lives south of the interstate. But St. John’s Medical Center sustained a direct hit. Her husband is a doctor and her daughter, pinned on Saturday, is a brand new nurse. Were they there?

I dug out her phone number, but telephone service was down. Texting — I read somewhere —was the best means of communicating in an emergency, but I only had the number for her landline.

More digging. I found the Jasper County emergency services broadband feed. It crackled off and on with clinical and efficient messages. I was struck by the calm in their voices, the sense of purpose in the midst of absolute chaos. I listened, riveted: “Traffic is flooding in here. Can someone stop it up there?”  “We can’t get through the streets; can you give us an alternate route?”  “Where’s the shelter being set up?” An accompanying Facebook page added more to the rescuers discussion. Here I learned that J-4 was a code name for someone who had not survived. Rescuers, referencing J-4, were asking, “Where is the temporary morgue?”

The tornado was “rain-wrapped,” the worse kind, meaning it couldn’t be seen coming. Only felt. All the bits and pieces of information pelting the broadbands were frightening knowing that Sarah and her family were there. I sent her a Facebook message, not knowing if she had power.

As I watched the destruction coalesce across news outlets and blogs and finally on television, I thought about all that was lost. I am certain that many people in Joplin who escaped with their lives would eventually agree that the things — even the precious things — are replaceable. Some things like photographs may not be, but their loss pales in comparison to lives.

It should always be all about lives.

We graduate from college. We pack up our diplomas and our graduation gifts. We sail off on a journey to build successful careers that we too often measure by what we own, by what privileges we earn, or by what we “have.” But in the end, an education measured only by power or wealth or accomplishment isn’t worth very much during times like Sunday in Joplin. If our educations, on the other hand, prompt us to roll up our sleeves like the citizens of Missouri, particularly the search, rescue and emergency people, our diplomas mean something very different.

Being the change sometimes means picking up the pieces after a disaster. Ultimately it means understanding that it’s the things that we can do without; it’s the people we can’t. I’m reminded of the massacre at Virginia Tech and JMU’s response. The university sent teams to Blacksburg to help. After the tornadoes in Virginia recently, I am sure Madison people were helping their neighbors. Jon McNamara (’05) with the Red Cross in Virginia certainly was, and soon I’ll share with you some of his perspectives. This week Madison magazine heard from Justin Constantine (’92) who has been appointed to a congressionally-mandated committee on wounded warriors. It is not the prestige, though, that excites Justin. “It is great to have the opportunity to be part of the solution,” he wrote. Be the Changer Anne Stewart, professor of graduate psychology, knows this too through her work with crisis intervention. There are hundreds of others who everyday take seriously the charge and responsibility to Be the Change.

Last night in Joplin, rescuers dug out the living trapped from under collapsed roofs and overturned cars. They rescued the wounded from rubble-filled basements, and they comforted those without bearings or belongings. If we respond as they did last night to everyday needs, then we validate education. And we change the world.

This morning, to my great relief, I heard from Sarah. She wasn’t in the path of the storm, but her daughter and son-in-law were not so fortunate. They lived in the path of the destruction. Their home and their cars are gone. Destroyed.  Nothing is left. They, however, were not at home when the tornado hit. They are safe.

Relieved, I sent Sarah a reply: “The best things in life aren’t things.” No, they certainly are not.

If want to help the people of Joplin, including some who are Dukes, the link to an ABC news story about how you can help:  http://abcnews.go.com/US/joplin-missouri-tornado-victims/story?id=13665690

To learn more about Anne Stewart and Justin Constantine, click on the links below:



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