IIHR: After the Storm, They Need Our Help

Friday, June 24, 2011

Living in Iowa, it’s easy to be blasé about tornados, but 2011 has delivered a harsh reminder of how deadly they can be.

IIHR Research Engineer Emeritus Tatsuaki Nakato and his son Ken recently traveled to Joplin, Mo., after the devastating tornado that struck there on May 22. They were among the thousands of rescue workers and volunteers who have been working to help the citizens of this southwestern Missouri city of 50,000.

The EF5 tornado touched down near the center of Joplin in a densely populated area. It brought 200 mph winds and left more than 150 dead, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado since 1947. The twister destroyed 2,000 buildings in its four-mile path.

After the storm, Nakato says, he could see that Joplin would not stay down for long. “I saw a sign painted on the back of a pickup,” he writes in an e-mail to friends and colleagues. “’Joplin may be FLAT, but we’ll be back!’”

Nakato and his son pitched in with other volunteers to clean up hard-hit neighborhoods. Nakato noticed the sewer drains were completely clogged with debris. “As a civil engineer, I wanted to clean the area along the sidewalks so water can run into the sewer lines without blocking,” Nakato says. Using a metal rake, he began work alone, clearing both sides of the street.

Ken Nakato near a demolished high school in Joplin, Mo.

Ken Nakato near a demolished high school in Joplin, Mo.

President Barack Obama visited Joplin that day, May 29, and his motorcade passed the area where Nakato and his son were working. The vehicles zipped by quickly and no one was able to catch a glimpse of the president. “I kept working on street cleaning by myself,” Nakato writes. “Then suddenly the presidential motorcade came back on the same street. I saluted straight to one of those black SUVs. The president was sitting in the back of an SUV.  He saw me saluting, and looked me in my eyes, and saluted back. What a moment it was! Eye-to-eye contact between the president of the United States and Tatsuaki Nakato — the moment will stay in my brain forever.”

Nakato adds, “What an honor to clean one block of the street where the president drove through! I am glad to be a part of this event.”

Nakato and his son spent a week in Joplin helping with the city’s recovery. “They need all our help,” Nakato says. He also worked in Parkersburg, Iowa, in the aftermath of the tornado that struck that small town in 2008, and in Phil Campbell, Ala., which was hit by a tornado in April of this year.