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JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — Members of Missouri Task Force 1 are back home tonight after spending four days in Mayfield, Kentucky. 

Sunday night, 45 task force members took off on a seven-hour drive to Kentucky, arriving at Murray State University at 3:30 a.m. Monday. The campus is roughly 30 miles from Mayfield. Hours later, they had boots on the ground going door to door assessing the damage and checking on victims. 

“Just looking at the initial damage when we got into the city, my flashbacks were this is very similar to Joplin, this is very similar to the tornadoes in Jefferson City,” Missouri Task Force 1 (MTF1) safety officer Jay Niemeyer said. “It always amazes me how nature workers that you can have a building completely destroyed next to a building that looks like nothing happened.”

Niemeyer has been with the force since the beginning, nearly 25 years. He’s also spent 31 years in the fire service and is now the assistant chief for the Jefferson City Fire Department. Throughout his career, Niemeyer has responded to hurricanes, tornadoes, and devastation, but this one was different. 

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been on a deployment where they are playing Christmas music,” Niemeyer said. “I’ve never heard that before.”

He said it’s not normal for the team to be deployed around Christmas time since hurricanes and tornadoes are normally in the earlier part of the year. 

“When we got back to our operations base and getting ready to lay down for the night, we thought, what are they going to do for Christmas, do they have Christmas presents, for even the houses that are still intact, is there going to be electricity in time for them to have Christmas?” Niemeyer said. 

Just two weeks before Christmas tornadoes ripped through western Kentucky, killing more than 70 people. 

“I didn’t get to see this house, but one of our firefighters down there talked about how we walked up to the front of the house, and it looked in perfect condition, we walked around the side and there was nothing,” Niemeyer said. 

Missouri’s task force teamed up with Tennessee Task Force 1 in Mayfield, a town level by a tornado. Members spent days checking in on those affected by the storms and evaluating buildings. 

Everywhere from literally a pile of two by fours on the ground to a house that is perfectly standing there with no damage at all and what’s amazing to me, they can be right next to each other,” Niemeyer said. 

Members hauled more than 100,000 pounds of equipment with them to Kentucky but need much of it. 
“Mostly what we used were our feet, our brains, and some basic tools,” Niemeyer said. “As a city, what buildings can people be in and not be in.”

He said besides checking on residents, another important part after a disaster, assessing if a building is still structurally sound. Niemeyer said this is done through an app and through a map given to local first responders. 

Most of the residents he spoke with asked for resources like shelter, water and information.
Less than five days after the team was deployed, Missouri Task Force 1 rolled back into Columbia Thursday afternoon. 

“We brought in a lot of resources, and it went a lot faster than we thought it was going to,” Niemeyer said. 
Niemeyer said there were a few things that stuck with the firefighter from his deployment. 

“On every disaster, on every hurricane I’ve been to, you think about that when you see this mass destruction, what are those people going to do, but I think it does step it up a notch because you’re thinking; and next week is Christmas,” Niemeyer said. 

Another thing he noticed, the bond of the Mayfield community. 

“On one street, there was a person driving around and taking flats of water and setting them on the front porch because they knew there wasn’t any water in that area,” Niemeyer said. “Two or three streets over, there was a lady saying I have food at the top of the hill and walking to every house. It just felt more personal at this level that I’ve seen on some deployments that people were literally going out to houses and saying here you go, what can I do to help you individually.”

When asked why he joined the task force more than two decades ago, he said he always wanted to be able to help. 

“At times it can be very heartbreaking and difficult when we actually go out to do our work and see the things we see, but it’s also very satisfying to know you were there and got to help in some way, shape or form,” Niemeyer said. 

In less than a day, the task force assessed and searched more than 2,000 structures in Mayfield. Throughout their deployment, the team also worked with the Indiana and Ohio task forces 
Niemeyer said there are only 28 teams like Missouri Task Force 1 in the country. The best way you can help people affected he said is with donations.