An EF 5 tornado, one of the strongest on record, struck my home town a year ago on a Sunday evening, May 22 at about 5:30 PM. Its path was only a couple of miles south of our house. I thought I would share with non-resident readers of my blog May 22, 2011 a video clip of the storm as it strikes. The camera overlooks an empty waiting room at St. John’s Medical Center, Joplin, MO, one of our two hospitals and a place in which my wife, Mollie, worked as a volunteer for more than 20 years.
St. John’s was totaled in the storm and was the scene of some of the 161 fatalities it claimed. The toll would have been much higher had it occurred at a busier time of day and week. The tornado missed the other hospital, Freeman’s, by only a block’s distance. The response by Freeman’s staff, and St. John’s too for that matter, was nothing less than heroic. EMT’s and citizens improvised very well, something that’s been studied and praised.
Our town’s identity has become entangled with that historic disaster. Our local paper, the Joplin Globe, has carried some item related to it virtually every day. An annual foot race, formerly called “Boomtown” in celebration of our mining history is now “Memorial” in, memory? commemoration? dedication? of the storm – I don’t know the right word. Clearly there is a reluctance to exploit a devastating disaster, but there’s no avoiding the fact that Joplin has become famous for a random act of nature.
Here is one picture I took in the storm-path area- we avoided going down right away so as not to get in the way of responders. One image which I wish I had captured but which will always be in my head was the sight of the Commerce bank vault standing like an alien metal cube on a bare concrete foundation. The small bank that had surrounded it, counters, teller windows, chairs, everything, was totally swept away.
President Obama visited the scene a year ago and is scheduled to return to speak at our high school graduation tomorrow. Federal, state and charitable aid has been coming in ever since. The high school was flattened too. It and the hospital are to be re-built – the hospital won’t be finished until 2015, but it will be all new and in a new location. An Arab country, the UAE, just donated five million dollars to fund a pediatric unit for it.
The tornado changed Joplin in so many ways. There are lots of new people around, scads of volunteers, even some sightseers wanting to tour the devastated area. Traffic increased immediately after the event and hasn’t let up yet. The biggest Walmart was also totaled and amazingly was rebuilt just in time for last year’s holiday shopping season – the smaller one in nearby Webb City was at full overload until that happened. It generally had all registers open and chiming for 6 months straight!
Houses are springing up in the tornado path, still bare of trees. They look strangely isolated here and there. There is some bickering and uncertainty about the quality of apartments and housing in the rebuilding mix, but the city government has been surprisingly efficient in handling it. Habitat for Humanity has been busy. I gather from news reports that crime has increased, but is under control. There were a few incidents of looting, but less than one might imagine. In general, with a lot of help, the town has bounced back, but we are not who we were. Things will never be the same.