By Jessica Carrick
Growing up in the heart of tornado alley, Jeff Neuenschwander, an Avis licensee serving Southwest Missouri, had been through it all before - but not like this one. The tornado that hit Joplin on Sunday, May 22 was classified as an F5 (out of 5) on the Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale. This is the most devastating tornado in the country since 1947.
Charting the storm as it crossed the state, Neuenschwander discovered it was heading for the house of Melinda Miller, the manager of his Joplin store.
"I texted her to see if she was OK, literally as I was watching the debris cloud on the radar on TV," says Neuenschwander, who lives halfway between Springfield and Joplin. With the phones out, Miller texted him that her house was damaged and she wasn't able to drive her car. "At that point I took off to try and find her," he says.
Neuenschwander arrived a half hour before dark. The initial emergency response teams waved him through thanks to an orange vest he was wearing.
"You could see the devastation and the gas fires," he recounts. "I tried to figure out where her house was but I couldn't tell the streets; there were no street signs and no houses. I could hear people screaming, and there were people trying to dig out others who were trapped."
Neuenschwander never did find Miller's house, but he ultimately found her in the neighborhood.
"We didn't know until after it was all over how bad our house was," says Miller, who was in the hallway with her boyfriend and three dogs when the roof was torn off. "And then we walked down the road and saw that just a few houses away there were houses that were completely leveled."
Neuenschwander loaded them up and took them back to the safety of his house.[PAGEBREAK]
The Disaster Response
The next day, as the scope of the devastation unfolded, Neuenschwander sprang into action. He contacted his lending institution and asked for some flexibility with his lines. He suspended the cars scheduled for auction and returned them to fleet.
He got on the phone to the Manheim Auction in Springfield, and within 30 minutes 15 drivers had signed up to help move cars. "No one asked how far they were going or the pay," he says. "They just showed up."
Reservations flooded in from a wide range of disaster relief providers, including the Red Cross and the White House. Neuenschwander's team moved cars within his four franchise locations and took vehicles from Avis Budget Group's regional offices in Dallas and Bentonville, Ark. "They (Avis Budget Group) took a very proactive approach to offering us employees and help on the ground and started pushing cars toward our area," he says.
Neuenschwander's fleet increased 25 percent to meet demands. "We've been out of cars essentially every day since this happened," he says. "We're doing everything we can to get vehicles in here for this response. And they are still coming in."
While many vehicles have been rented to workers organizing the relief effort, in Joplin, 75 percent have been to residents.
Miller says the insurance rentals are taking longer to get approved. Most rentals are for at least a month, and many will be one-way drops. "We've rented pickup trucks to people who have lost everything and are moving back to wherever they came from," Neuenschwander says.
"Just about everyone from our Springfield staff worked overtime through the (Memorial Day) holiday weekend," says Neuenschwander, who even worked the counter until midnight. "We had employees on their days off down in Joplin to answer the phones, to try and talk to the insurance companies that are trying to get cars for their adjusters, who are trying to get cars for their customers."
Employee efforts haven't gone unnoticed. "It has been fantastic to see people come together to respond," Neuenschwander says.