- Written by Ed Zimmer
On Sunday evening on May 22, 2011, an EF5 tornado destroyed a wide swatch of Joplin, Missouri. The severe weather killed at least 154 people and damaged one of two major hospitals to the point where it had to be abandoned.
The path of damage was 13.8 miles long, and at one point, nearly a mile wide. I was huddled less than 5 miles away from the tornado, experiencing high winds, hail, torrential rain and deadly lightning. In Joplin and the surrounding communities warning sirens were screaming.
That evening when I reached the facility, I learned that the Healthcare Linen Specialists (a division of Joplin Workshop Inc.) had no power. In less than 10 hours, we were scheduled to begin processing hospital linen, not only for the hospital that was hit, but for six other hospitals in the region and a nearby casino resort.
As a sheltered workshop facility, we employ people with disabilities. Many rely on community services for transportation to and from work, along with service coordinators for overnight staffing and day operations. Given the extent of the damage that we were hearing about from spotty reports, we knew it was likely that many of our employees and staff may have been in the path of the tornado and could be among the injured or dead.
By our Monday morning start time of 4 am, only one early shift worker had arrived. We still had no power. A few more team members straggled in over the next few hours and as the sun finally rose, the extent of the devastation was becoming evident. We knew that we had to start making decisions on linen transport, all dependent on the restoration of power.
I’m proud to say that this disaster brought out the best in our industry and the supporting companies. Offers to do whatever was needed came from other laundry processing facilities, linen supply companies, equipment supply companies and cooperative processors. There was no such thing as competitors as the offers for aid poured in from Enterprise Laundry in Springfield Ozark Mountain in Hollister, Linen King in Oklahoma City, Elite Linen in Clinton, Loomis Brothers in Kansas City, RJ Kool in Kansas City, Standard Textile, Wholesale Textile and Atlantic Coast Textile. Forgive me if I inadvertently left someone out. In the face of this disaster, everyone pulled together in an outpouring of aid to the suffering community.
Monday was hectic. Power was finally restored at about 8 am with intermittent losses causing us to question our decision to process goods at our facility. Full, reliable power finally came on line about 11:00 am and we set to work. With a makeshift crew of mostly staff and some higher functioning employees, coupled with family volunteers we did what we could to get the day’s linen out. Throughout the evening we learned more about the destruction that had been visited on Joplin.
On Tuesday we had power at the start of work and more team members managed to make it into the facility. Their arrival was a major effort since the taxi company that we had been using for transport and the Community services transports were both wiped out by the storm. We processed the weekend’s goods, and got them back to our customers.
Storms overnight brought more headaches on Wednesday as a power line outside our facility was knocked down, again leaving us without power. This forced us to ship two hospitals worth of linen an hour away to be processed. By Thursday, we finally had reliable power, a nearly full work staff and more information on the area’s situation. But the three days were another test that showed just how fragile laundry operations can be in an emergency weather situation.
At Healthcare Linen Specialists we were fortunate to escape damage since the plant is located just 8 blocks from the tornado’s path. Regardless, the power and transportation issues added stress to an already overwhelming situation. The outpouring of support and willingness to do whatever needed to be done in order to handle the demands upon us meant a lot to us and the front line tornado responders. St. John’s Regional Medical Center set up as a Mobile Surgical Hospital near the ruins of their other hospital and we provided linen to them, twice daily. Thanks to more people than can be counted, we not only weathered the storm, but we continued to provide linen services.
Thankfully we did not need to accept many of the offers of help that were made, but the fact that they were made in the first place shows that in times of crisis, our industry pulls together for the good of all - no matter the affiliations or competitions. The Joplin community is doing the same thing and the outpouring of support from across the world is truly humbling.
I am proud of my colleagues, my business associates and most of all, our team members and the volunteers who, despite the damage they suffered in their homes and personal lives, still came to work as soon as they could to help their community. Thanks also to the utility workers from all over who worked tirelessly to get our power back on.
Healthcare Linen Specialists services seven hospitals in and around Joplin, Missouri, including St. John’s which was damaged to the point where it cannot be rebuilt. 20 staff and 65 employees operate 6 days a week to service the healthcare linen needs of the hospitals and numerous clinics. Since the tornado, HLS has assumed additional duties which were formerly handled by the St. John’s Linen Room. While no HLS employees or staff were killed, one staff member was injured and three employees from the Joplin Workshop facility of which HLS is a subsidiary, died of injuries sustained in the tornado. Ed Zimmer is Laundry Manager and has been with Joplin Workshops for 16 years.
Ed Zimmer is the Laundry Manager for Healthcare Linen Specialists located in Joplin, MO
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