JOPLIN — As crews begin the long task of removing millions of cubic yards of debris in Joplin, city and federal officials warned Wednesday that people should take precautions to avoid dust and other airborne particulates that could contain hazardous material.
More than 8,000 homes and apartments, and more than 500 commercial properties, were damaged or destroyed in the May 22 tornado. State officials said 134 people have been confirmed dead. Everyone has been accounted for.
The Army National Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Missouri National Guard and other agencies are working together on debris removal that began Wednesday. That will mean bulldozers will be moving piles of debris, streets will be swept, and other actions will take place that could raise dust, some of it potentially hazardous.
The Environmental Protection Agency has provided masks and safety instructions to search and rescue crews, contractors, volunteers and residents. Masks are available at the Missouri Southern State University campus and are being passed out in the field at several distribution centers.
"If it's dusty enough that you can visibly see dust coming at you, you should wear the masks that have been provided as a precaution," said Eric Nold, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA.
Since Saturday, the EPA has been monitoring air quality in Joplin at six ground-level sites in the debris field, checking for asbestos and other potentially harmful particulates that could be floating in the air from the devastating tornado that ripped through more than six miles of town.
So far, tests show particulate levels are normal, city officials said. No asbestos has been found in testing.
The city said temporary, roving testing stations will be installed where debris collection is occurring. While dust and particulate testing shows immediate results, testing for asbestos takes about two days to process.
"We have no reason to believe that dust or particulates are a health hazard at this point, but we simply want people to be aware and take precautions as they go about their work," said Sam Anselm, Joplin's assistant city manager.
FEMA said more than 7,000 Joplin-area residents have registered for assistance since the EF-5 tornado that packed winds of more than 200 mph.