Veterinarian tells story of chaos, relief in tornado's aftermath

Dr. Ben Leavens sets up makeshift ER while family is missing

June 1, 2011 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Dr. Ben Leavens, his wife and five of his six children were united following a harrowing spring, which brought flood and tornado damage to the family in Joplin, Mo.

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Dr. Ben Leavens' veterinary practice sits a half-block from utter devastation. His home succumbed to floods in April. Three weeks later, his wife and four of his six children were nearly swallowed by the monster EF-5 tornado that shredded Joplin, Mo. 

On May 22, Leavens was driving home from taking his eldest child to the airport and had one child with him when, from his car window, he saw an ominous storm approaching. He phoned his wife, who had two children with her at church. Then he called their two teenage daughters, who were in the third-story apartment the family had moved into after their home was flooded. Leavens told the girls to take shelter. 

"Everyone knew it was going to be bad before it hit," said Leavens. "The storm was surreal, even from a distance." 

He raced his one-ton passenger van towards his girls to find a mangled apartment with no one in it. Roofing material had come in the window of the room the girls were in and slammed into the closet they should have been in. 

About 20 people were texting him, but the few texts he received were garbled. 

Leavens didn't have time to worry. He could see injured people around the apartment complex, clearly in need of help. He had camping material in his van and used it to set up a human triage behind Wal-Mart.

"That night, it didn't matter if you did human or vet med," Leavens said. Ministering to people wasn't foreign to Leavens, anyway. He had considering becoming a physician and worked as a respiratory therapist before choosing veterinary medicine.

The security guard from his apartment complex was in shock from severe injury but told Leavens that two girls had been with him. One had a broken collar bone, the other had minor injuries, and they had gone to the hospital. Leavens thought that meant his children were OK. He didn't realize until later that those girls were not his daughters.

"You can't imagine the confusion (that was) here," Leavens said.

Two hours later, his wife was able to get through to him by telephone. She had been driving their small car about 4 miles through the frightening beginning of the storm to pick up the girls, who were not at an arranged meeting place. She managed — barely — to find them just before the worst of the storm arrived. The tornado came in from behind them as they drove from the apartment complex. Panicked drivers were traveling the wrong way, and the Leavens family faced oncoming traffic while being thrown by the intense wind. Nonetheless, they made it safely out of town.

A couple days later, Leavens posted to colleagues on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online professional community: "Almost out of battery so will be brief. Devastation here in Joplin is beyond imagination. Two of us are out of a clinic. It will be awhile before we can repair/rebuild. We lost our residence, which was in an apartment complex behind Wal-Mart where we were staying due to extensive flood damage three weeks ago. House is now flooding again. Two of my daughters were saved by an incredibly heroic act of courage by my wife and her friend, all five kids and Becky are okay and have moved to Kansas City while I assist with recovery here. Central Joplin is an empty prairie, and for once I am not using hyperbole. Gotta go."  

Leavens also kept his clients and staff updated with notices on his clinic's Facebook page

The clinic Leavens owns, Main Street Pet Care, employs four veterinarians and 20 support staff. When the tornado hit, 70 animals were in the clinic with two staff members. Most were being boarded, and a few were sick or strays. 

Leavens' clinic was damaged but nowhere near as much as the practice owned by Dr. Jim Christman, another veterinarian in Joplin. High winds took the roof off Main Street Pet Care, which allowed rain water to come in. The practice's HVAC system was destroyed, and the water supply was cut off. The phones weren't working and the servers were wet. 

"We're doing cleanup. We are hopeful to have it open next week," Leavens said on Tuesday. Full repairs are expected to take months.

Staff worked around-the-clock in the rain. All the animals in the clinic were fine, but because there was no running water, they had to be moved.

"Thanks to the dedication of my staff, the animals looked like nothing had happened to them," Leavens said. "But we knew that BART (Big Animal Rescue Truck) from the Humane Society of Missouri was on its way. They knew we'd been hit, so they were desperately trying to get into contact so they could help. ASPCA also came to help." 

The relief truck took the clinic's 70 animals to the Joplin Humane Society.

Once the clinic's animals were taken care of, Leavens set up a shelter for others' animals. As a member of the Missouri Volunteer Veterinary Corps, Leavens knew what to do. The corps is a group of emergency management veterinarians who assist local officials and pet owners during disasters. 

"We've trained for years for this," Leavens said. "The biggest problem we knew we would have is that people won't leave their homes without their pets. That's why we set up a 300-pet facility so fast. People were camping out around what was left of their house because they wouldn't leave until their pets were safe. After we took in their pets, they were able to take steps to find shelter for themselves. I don't know how many pets we took in, but we were able to keep our promises. We filled that facility; it's still full. In this disaster, we could have used more room. The Humane Society transferred their animals to other shelters and took in some." 

Meanwhile, as many as 150 search-and-rescue (S&R) and cadaver dogs and their handlers arrived from all over the world.

"I can't tell you how fast they got here, and how excellent they are. They are incredible," Leavens said. "I had no idea how they functioned. S&R is almost entirely volunteer. They are true heroes. They will do whatever it takes to save lives." 

The S&R teams also needed veterinary support. A care station was set up in a tent. Then that tent was damaged by a subsequent storm. As much as nature kept thwarting their efforts, the people persevered. The fire department lent a truck to the veterinarians' effort.

"We manned that station 24/7 for S&R with at least one vet, one tech, and one assistant," Leavens said. "I have three vets and 20 staff, some of whom lost their homes too, but we had to keep working. We would have gone crazy if we didn't." 

Leavens brought equipment from his clinic to the station.

"We saw a lot of paw injuries, which were treated effectively, and we did a lot of decontamination. Dogs got into stuff like organic phosphates and tar at Home Depot, contaminants in ponds, and oils and chemicals," Leavens said. "We washed them with Dawn and scrubbed the heck out of them."

One S&R dog with laryngeal paralysis had gone through Leavens' apartment complex, which was littered with insulation. The dog inhaled the insulation and as a result, developed pneumonia. 

Members of some S&R teams told Leavens that they had never seen a disaster quite like this one in terms of destruction to urban areas. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Joplin tornado is the deadliest since recordkeeping began in 1950, and is ranked 8th among the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history. It had winds in excess of 200 mph, was three-quarters of a mile wide and had a track lasting six miles.

"You can see six miles of open plain," Leavens said. 

As terrible as the twister was, Leavens feels the community responded to the disaster as well as it could have. For his part, Leavens is always prepared. He carries headlamps, flashlights and gloves wherever he goes. He thinks everyone should carry those items.

"I was the only one with a headlamp that night. It is so important to have a headlamp in a disaster. I have headlamps stashed away in different places. If you don't have these things you're basically screwed because you can't function." 

For veterinarians, Leavens notes that the most used items were bandages, vet wrap conforming bandaging, lighting and blankets. He added that when everything gets wet, dry blankets are extremely hard to find in the first hours after a disaster.  

Leavens believes the amount of time and effort his community put into disaster preparedness proved successful and necessary.

"The systems we've developed over the years really paid off. We've been through four major disasters in five years," he said. "We're prepared."

If people want to send money that will directly help animals in Joplin, Leavens suggests giving to the Humane Society of Missouri or the Missouri ASPCA because he feels they are the most effective groups in the area. Donors should mark their funds specifically for rescue and relief in Joplin. 

The VIN Foundation's Stone Soup initiative is accepting donations to help cover Dr. Leavens' out-of-pocket medicine and supply expenses for the emergency care of pets and S&R dogs. You do not need to be a member of VIN to donate.   

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