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Excruciating Heat Creating Risk of Illness, Injury for Volunteers in Joplin

Photo credit: Jeremy Shreckhise
Photo credit: Jeremy Shreckhise

Residents of southern Missouri can agree that summertime in the Ozarks can be unbearably hot and humid. Recently, temperatures and heat indices have been hitting over 100 degrees in areas including Joplin. In lieu of the tornado that hit on May 22, disaster volunteers and local residents who are spending much of their time outside now stand the chance of suffering from heat-related illness. KSMU’s Rebekah Clark reports on how the American Red Cross and other organizations are responding to this new set of problems for Joplin.

 It’s now 42 days after the tornado hit Joplin. Many volunteers still flock to the area looking for some way to help out. However, in a press release from the American Red Cross, the organization says the past several days in particular have been especially stressful for workers. The organization is doing its best to get the word out before volunteers end up sick, or worse. Greg Gaines, Missouri Region D Mass Care Coordinator for the American Red Cross, is an expert in safety procedures in disaster clean-up.

 “Well the first thing I would say, when it comes to working disasters, especially in this high heat environment, is hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Make sure you have, and not only have, but drink, plenty of fluids. I mean, we are talking about six, seven quarts a day; it’s outrageous how much you have to drink a day to stay healthy and not pass out.”

 Now many might think they have heard this message before: be safe, stay hydrated, and don’t take unnecessary risks in the summer heat. However, it can get a bit tricky when volunteers, who are supposed to be fully covered in long sleeves, heavy boots and pants to protect themselves from dangerous debris, also have to stay cool. Carrie Zukoski, spokesperson for the United Way of greater St. Louis and mediator for many Joplin relief projects, says there are ways for volunteers to stay both protected and cool.

 “I think you can still go out there and help and maybe wear lighter colored heavy clothing, like maybe a light khaki or something like that, or a white shirt that reflects the heat, and just take a lot of breaks. It slows the process down, but it helps you. We want you to be healthy and safe.”

 Gaines agrees with Zukoski about the light colored clothes. He says that people may not be aware of how cool your body can stay when wearing the right materials.

 “Groups and peoples around the world totally cover their bodies in long, waving robes, I mean as long as it’s a light color, as you sweat on the inside that evaporation is a cooling process. So it sounds backwards, ‘Why would I dress up with long clothes and long shirts?’ Well, as you dress up in those and sweat and they are moist, that is a part of the evaporation process and it actually helps with the cooling.”

 There are other tips to remember as well. Zukoski says when working outside, people should really pay attention to their bodies, and not ignore signals saying it’s time to stop. 

 “You don’t want to really eat heavy meals throughout the day. You want to work side-by-side with somebody. You guys want to check on each other to make sure you are drinking those fluids. If you have cool towels around, you know maybe take a chest full of ice and leave a couple towels in there that you can get wet and cold and put those on. Again, light-weight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing is best if you can do that.” 

The message is clear: help out, but be smart. Don’t touch nails and sharp metal, and stay away from products that might irritate your skin. Use sunscreen and sturdy shoes outside. And, just in case, get a tetanus shot beforehand.

 Zukoski says future volunteers can also remember that there are important indoor volunteer jobs that need to be filled as well. She says any people with sensitive health risks, especially those on medication that might require refrigeration, should look into these indoor jobs first. Also, those interested in volunteering are encouraged to join a group or organization, and not just go to Joplin on their own. Relief groups will help monitor volunteers who might be exposed to high temperatures and will help keep them hydrated throughout the whole process.

 For KSMU News, I’m Rebekah Clark.