Disaster conferees heed Missouri tornado sirens

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 6:38 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — More than 500 people attending the annual conference for the umbrella organization of disaster volunteer groups knew exactly what to do when the skies over Kansas City turned a little turbulent Wednesday and the tornado sirens blared: head into the hotel's massive storm shelter.

For this crowd, some of whom were in Oklahoma City in 1995 after the federal building was bombed or at Ground Zero after Sept. 11, 2001, or more recently in Japan for relief work after the earthquake and tsunami, a tornado warning is only something to heed.

"All of these people are responding to disasters day in and day out," said Mickey Caison, president of the board of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, which is based in Arlington, Va., and coordinates emergency response from private agencies.

The participants took cover in the Hyatt's storm shelter about noon when tornadoes were reported along the nearby Missouri-Kansas border. The storms eventually moved east without causing major damage or injuries in the Kansas City area.

Many of the participants at the conference, which runs through Friday and includes such organizations as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, were already keenly aware of the devastation in Joplin, where more than 120 people died when a tornado hit Sunday. Several participants had abandoned some conference events to head to Joplin, which Kathleen Oldaker, conference coordinator, said was the focus of much conversation.

"We're all talking about it," she said.

Or at least they had been until Wednesday when the wind kicked up. Then the weather became the favored topic, Oldaker said.

"I was like, who picked Missouri in May?" she said.

National VOAD's Executive Director Bob Leipold said Missouri was selected in part because they were "promised that all of this bad weather is done by this time of the year."

Next year, however, he said the annual conference is scheduled for Virginia.

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