News: Corps Joplin tornado volunteer helps police bust looters
Story by Chris Gray
JOPLIN, Mo. – John Garrett glowered at the minivan prowling ahead of him on a tornado-ravaged Joplin street. Four teenagers inside slipped two-by-two out of the open sliding doors on each side, darting through the evening light into shredded shells of homes.
“At first I thought they might be residents clearing out their property,” Garrett said. “But when they saw me watching them, their heads kept swiveling back at me.”
He followed at a distance as they made their way up the road, the van and a pick-up truck in the lead, looting as they went.
“I don’t get angry – but it made me furious,” Garrett said.
He snapped a photo of the license plate with his smart phone and peeled away. Finding a police cruiser a few blocks down the road, he made a report. The officer looked at the photo. It wasn’t a local plate, he told Garrett. He drove off in pursuit.
It was about 8 p.m. June 11, about three weeks after an F-5 tornado devastated much of Joplin and its surrounding communities May 22. Garrett, a real estate specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Joplin recovery effort, had arrived June 5. During the day, he processes right-of-entry waivers from homeowners wanting the Corps to clear their lots of tornado debris. But at night, in the two hours between the end of his workday and bedtime, he collects food from neighboring restaurants and trawls the disaster area, delivering it to Joplin’s families in need.
He was out on a delivery the night he reported the looters, and he was out again a few nights later when he ran into the same police officer. That van and truck he’d reported? They were looters, alright, the officer told him. They’d been at it for days, judging by the haul officers found them with after their arrest. More than likely, they’d still be at it, if it weren’t for Garrett.
For that act of heroism, Garrett received the Heartland Award for Heroism from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Kansas City District commander, Col. Anthony Hofmann. Joplin Recovery Field Office commander, Col. Daniel Patton, presented Garrett with the award on Hofmann’s behalf in a short ceremony June 29.
“Anyone who saw that would have reported it,” Garrett said. “It just annoyed me to no end to see people taking advantage of people who were hurting so much. I thought, ‘We can do something about this.’
“We’re here to help,” Garrett said of his work with the Corps. “The government pays me to help during the workday. But when work’s over, I could either go back and sit in my room, or I can keep helping. And that’s what I’m here to do.”
Now retired, Garrett worked for the Corps’ Little Rock District for 15 years, but remains deployable by keeping current with health and security deployment requirements. Rehired annuitants, as employees like Garrett are called, are an important part of the Corps’ emergency response force. They bring years of experience, and reduce the need to pull staff from the Corps’ day-to-day operations.
The Joplin recovery effort is Garrett’s seventh federal disaster mission. He had previously served in both the U.S. Army and Navy, and is a veteran of the Vietnam War.
As part of the federal government’s Joplin tornado recovery effort, the Corps is managing debris removal from Joplin’s roadways and destroyed homes, overseeing construction of temporary replacement structures for critical public facilities like schools and fire stations, and providing temporary housing to displaced residents – missions assigned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As his 30-day assignment comes to an end, Garrett said he’s amazed at the progress of the recovery effort and the resiliency of the people of Joplin – and that he’s grateful for the opportunity to serve.
“We don’t have to do this,” Garrett said. “We get to do this.”