Weather Forecast


Willmar psychologist joins Joplin effort

Willmar psychologist Catherine Miller. Submitted

News accounts of the tornado that ravaged Joplin, Missouri, were so jarring that Catherine Miller felt compelled to do something immediately. "I can't be sitting here watching this, I have to go,'' said Miller. Now, it's the stories of the survivors she is helping that Miller finds so compelling.

Miller, of Willmar, is a licensed psychologist serving on a Red Cross mental health disaster team in Joplin.

She reached Joplin only two days after the tornado that had ripped through one-third of the city and killed more than 130 people.

Paired with a health care provider, Miller went door to door to meet survivors and make sure mental health services were made available to those in need. She looked especially for those overwhelmed by anxiety or exhibiting early symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Almost everyone was in shock at the scope of the disaster and the random nature of it, she said. One neighborhood could literally be obliterated, not a single house remaining. In another, homes were battered but still standing and their owners were still able to occupy them, she said.

Reached by phone on Friday in Joplin, Miller said the magnitude of the physical and emotional harm wreaked by the tornado cannot be adequately told. She met one Joplin police officer showing signs of post-traumatic stress from the tornado. He told her he had served in Iraq, but nothing he saw there compared to the destruction surrounding him in his hometown.

Miller summoned police help to manage one suicidal man she encountered.

The Red Cross mental health disaster team's main role is to serve as the "bridge" in the mental health care system. She and other mental health professionals will make sure care is provided to survivors until local caregivers can return to their roles.

The most important service at first was the comfort they could offer. "Most of the time they needed a reassuring hand, they needed to know someone was there, that we were on the next street corner,'' said Miller.

It was also important to hear their stories and know their trauma. One woman told her how a railroad car had slammed right through her living room and into her bedroom, where she had taken shelter.

In the first few days, people had no means of communication and sought frantically to learn the fate of loved ones. Their immediate attention focused on the need to find a place to stay and money to live.

Miller said things are stabilizing in Joplin, and people are moving on to the next step of finding places to stay for the longer term.

Miller had also served as a Red Cross volunteer to aid the victims of the Wadena tornado. The only difference is the scale. "It's the same kind of feeling,'' said Miller of the hurt to those affected.

"It's almost like it kind of reduces you to being a child again because you're helpless. You have nothing. You might be injured and you might not know where anybody is. You have no money. Nothing.''

It can be hard on the volunteers too. Miller said she ran on adrenalin for the first five days, and is now slowing down. She will be returning home on Tuesday. She hopes that by extending her hand to help, she made a difference for those who have had their lives changed so dramatically.

Persons who wish to assist the Red Cross effort in Joplin and elsewhere are encouraged to call: 1-800-560-7641.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335