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Former FD man helps with Joplin cleanup

Sells gave up holiday weekend to move debris

June 2, 2011
By BILL SHEA - Messenger staff writer , Messenger News

JOPLIN, Mo. - Jim Sells couldn't take his eyes off the images of destruction he saw after a massive tornado flattened part of Joplin, Mo., last month.

''I was kind of glued to the coverage,'' the Fort Dodge native said Wednesday.

After awhile, Sells could no longer watch. He felt the need to act.

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So he got into his car, drove a little more than five hours from his home in Omaha, Neb., to the devastated city, and spent Memorial Day weekend picking up debris.

In Joplin, the 29-year-old saw destruction that he struggled to describe in words.

He also was touched by the spirit of Joplin residents who lost everything, but offered to feed the volunteers who came to help them.

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Jim Sells carries debris away from one of the many homes either heavily damaged or destroyed in the recent Joplin tornado.

''The genuine spirit of the people reminded me of my hometown of Fort Dodge,'' Sells said.

Sells, the program director of an inner city community center, drove to Missouri on May 27. His first stop was the campus of Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, where a command center had been established to coordinate the volunteers. There he boarded a school bus and was driven to a neighborhood near the city's central high school.

''You could smell that sense of death in the air,'' Sells said.

Volunteers like him were put to work removing and stacking debris in different piles. Tree branches went in one stack, while ruined appliances were in another. Moving all of that was done by hand, he said.

The different stacks of rubbish were placed close to the roads so that they could be easily picked up, he added. Personal property like photos were left close to the remains of the houses so that residents could find them, according to Sells.

He said the people who lived in the demolished homes were there, trying to salvage their belongings. He said some of them appeared to be in shock, but they gradually recovered with each passing day.

''You could see the energy and motivation being injected into them as volunteers flooded into their neighborhoods,'' he said.

As the volunteers worked, others brought food and ''cases and cases of bottled water'' to them, Sells said.

He spent May 27-30 working up to eight hours a day removing debris. At night he slept in a Baptist church on the outskirts of Joplin.

On May 29, he joined the crowd at the university campus for a memorial service at which President Barack Obama spoke.

''The second the president arrived a whole wave of emotion went through the crowd,'' he said. ''The place just went nuts.''

''I was looking at the people's faces,'' he added. ''They couldn't seem to believe that the president would come to see them.''

The next day, Sells drove back to Omaha so that he could get back to work.

He said his days amid the destruction in Joplin demonstrated that problems and challenges he faces simply aren't that bad.

''It just puts everything in perspective,'' he said.

Contact Bill Shea at (515) 573-2141 or



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