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June 1, 2011

New Jersey EMT on mercy mission to Joplin

By Harvey Lipman
Herald News

PASSAIC COUNTY, N.J. -- Gail Lazarus arrived in Joplin last week, and at first the Red Cross volunteer couldn't see any signs of the devastation caused by the massive tornado.

"You can be driving around this town and not know anything happened," said the emergency medical technician from Woodcliff Lake.

"Then we came to this house and the one after it was gone," Lazarus said. "Then as far as the eye can see, everything is demolished, with debris everywhere. God only knows what's under that debris. It's many feet deep."

Lazarus arrived in Joplin on Wednesday, three days after the killer tornado cut a swath 4 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide through a mostly residential area. In its wake, the EF-5 twister left more than 130 people dead in this small city in southwest Missouri.

"I'm standing here watching truck after truck go by, filled with trees and tree branches," she added during a phone conversation. "There are almost no trees left standing. They haven't begun removing the debris of the houses yet."

Among the piles of wood sit stark reminders of the homes that were destroyed.

"You see all this recognizable rubble, parts of houses, mattresses, chairs, just sitting there," Lazarus continued. "I saw a mattress stuck in what was left of a tree. All kinds of things are up in the few trees that are left."

Lazarus is among several health care workers who are part of the Red Cross disaster-response team; she's the only member from North Jersey.

On her first day in Joplin, she came across an agitated woman.

"She was an older woman, in her late 80s, maybe her 90s," Lazarus said. "She still had her house, but the unattached garage had been flattened and so had the deck to her house."

But that wasn't the immediate cause of her distress.

The trees in her yard, many of which dated back to when she and her husband built their home 50 years ago, had been shredded by the tornado.

"The cleanup crews were taking away the branches and she wanted them to stop," Lazarus recalled. "She wanted to save some of the big branches for her children. So we found the head of the crew and he agreed to stop taking them away."

This is the third major disaster to which Lazarus has responded as a Red Cross volunteer. "I started with Hurricane Katrina six years ago," she said. "I was in Mississippi."

Lazarus found it difficult to compare the damage she saw after Katrina with what she's confronting now.

"I guess the difference between that and this is that Katrina was a bigger area," she said finally. "This is far more devastating because it's in a concentrated area. But then I didn't get to Mississippi until a couple of months after the hurricane, so it's hard to say."

That volunteer stint after the hurricane changed her life, Lazarus added. She had a brief teaching career when she was younger but gave it up to raise her children.

"I tell people before I went I was the typical Woodcliff Lake comfy little housewife," she said. "But something happened to me. I saw those pictures from Katrina and I just had to go help."

When she returned home, Lazarus became an EMT. Today the 51-year-old is the day lieutenant with the Tri-Boro Volunteer Ambulance Corps serving her home town as well as Montvale and Park Ridge.

"I'm in charge of scheduling and overseeing anything that happens during the day," she said. "Volunteering for the Red Cross is the best thing I ever did."

Lazarus, who will spend two weeks in Joplin, is the second Red Cross volunteer from North Jersey to participate in tornado disaster relief efforts in the past month.

After a string of deadly tornadoes swept across Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia on April 27, Ridgefield Park resident Joe DellaBarca drove the Red Cross emergency response vehicle that served victims in Hackleburg, Ala.

DellaBarca returned home May 20 after a three-week stint.

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"Things were starting to calm down there," he said. "But it was an amazing experience. The hugs and the heartfelt thanks those people gave us -- that's something I will never forget."