Around 5 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 11, a large storm raged through DeSoto County leaving a path of destruction from Love to Fairhaven. Heavy winds screamed and howled, rains poured, and hail battered the homes of the communities. Homes were destroyed, lives were impacted, hearts were broken, and families were shattered.
As the storm moved eastward, the calls for help began to fill the dispatch centers and the radio waves ignited with the sounds of emergency service personnel receiving their marching orders. People were trapped in their homes, the very place they should never feel unsafe. Roads were impassible for anyone looking to find a way out of the rubble. Concern loomed over families as they tried feverishly to reach their loved ones only to find their calls either unanswered or not able to connect.
While the reality of a storm is heartbreaking, seeing the outpouring of support can resurrect hope in any situation. That is what happened immediately after the heavy portion of the storm seemingly disappeared like it never happened.
Resources from all parts of DeSoto County mobilized without hesitation to seek out those in need. Career fire services alongside Volunteer fire service personnel cut, dragged and climbed their way through miles of roadways riddled with age-old trees and debris.
Law enforcement officers rushed to the aid of anyone they could find. Dispatch centers filled with personnel looking to support the operation any way they could from taking calls to tracking resources. The County EOC remained operational as it had been for hours before the storm even hit, buzzing with exceptionally trained personnel from the EMA office and the EMA reservist team.
Trained personnel from all over DeSoto County flocked to the areas to join the rescue efforts. As the darkness lightened the gray skies continued to assault emergency personnel with endless rain. Lightning split through the clouds and thunder reminded the crews that storms were still on the horizon. Calls continued to be relayed by the dispatch center.
Little by little crews chipped away at the mess and found their way to those in need. Some were shaken and scared but fortunate to have everything still intact while others found themselves standing in a place they did not even recognize.
Emergency personnel did what their training has taught them and remained professional even though their hearts filled with emotions as they watched families and neighbors reunite. Many of the volunteer crews were also members of the communities they were raking through. Some were still uncertain of the actual damage to their own homes, but it never distracted them from the task at hand.
Neighborhoods remained reclusive due to power lines making entry and egress extremely difficult. Crews walked for miles as they made every attempt to reach every person they possibly could.
Throughout the morning, secondary searches sought out to find anyone that they possibly could have missed in the haste of the primary search and rescue efforts. More than eight hours in, resources were being relieved to return to their respective areas. Emergency service personnel became civilians again and attempted to piece their lives back together. For those fortunate enough to emerge unscathed by the storm, moments of reflection of all they had seen and heard filled their thoughts. Plans to find ways to help in the following days became almost an obsession.
Saturday evening the County EMA office made the desire to help a possibility for anyone willing to volunteer. Volunteers filled the Emergency Operations Center eagerly awaiting the opportunity to help. A well-prepared briefing gave the anxious teams their objectives. Once again crews hit the ground running heading right back into the destruction.
With the continued leadership of the EMA team, teams recorded the devastation and reported the findings back to the team at the EOC for documentation. Home after home teams encountered stories of optimism that lives were not lost. One of the first questions each heard was "Have you heard of anyone getting hurt or needing anything?" These were the very people carrying trees to the road or putting tarps on their homes and yet they still worried more for their neighbors.
The local Volunteer fire stations and the EOC continued to fill with everything from cases of water to toiletries. Throughout the day every interaction reminded the members that what they were doing meant something to someone. A hug from a stranger saying thank you or the offer of something to drink, the heart of DeSoto County never missed a beat. Day turned to night and the job was done. Crews made their way back to the office to hand off any additional information that could help the impacted areas. Handshakes and dreary smiles lent a sense of familiarity between strangers.
The coming days will most assuredly prove difficult as the adrenaline burns off and the remanence of devastation remains. Many of the personnel that worked the early hours of the dawn to the dwindling light of dusk must return to their "normal" lives leaving the remaining tasks to the already dreary core team of DeSoto County.
While the bulk of this has reflected from the perspective of a first responder it does not take away from the countless hours of work of so many people. The heavy equipment crews from all over moved the immovable and helped to push on into the people in need, utility crews organized and detangled the nests of cables that inhibited rescue efforts, and many non-profit organizations gave hope.
Storms will come and go as they have for thousands of years but the light in the darkness is that DeSoto County has the heart to overcome. The pulse of each heartbeat is felt through the continued service of the volunteers across DeSoto County. The unknown person that stands in line behind you may just be the first face that you see when all feels lost. They respond to emergencies often using their personal vehicles and fuel without asking for the first bit of compensation. Truth is they would be offended if someone tried. What they get from helping is unmeasurable by any quantitative figure. They have hearts the size of DeSoto County.
With renewed faith in mankind, God Bless
Jeff Hale, State Representative District 24