A Memoir of Permanent Change

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.

EF-5 tornado zone, Joplin MO, May, 201, by James Wheeler

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.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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7 Responses to A Memoir of Permanent Change

  1. PiedType says:

    I was pleasantly surprised to read about the UAE-donated funds. I’ve often wondered why, when the U.S. always rushes in with aid to other disaster-struck countries, foreign countries don’t seem to reciprocate. Or if they do, it isn’t reported. Or in some cases, proferred aid is refused. I sense a sort of snootiness about the U.S. being too wealthy and all-powerful to need help from anyone else or to admit to accepting it.

    I’m glad to hear Joplin is recovering, but I understand, as you said, that tornado strikes forever change the community psyche.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    First, Pied, as I recall, it was an Arab country, UAB I THINK, that donated fundes to purchase a computer for every high schoold student as well.

    For sure Jim, some things will never be the same, physically. If we get it right however that which replaces the old, physically will be even better than before. I hope you noted in Sunday’s Globe the AP article reporting that some $2.4 Billion in PRIVATE insurance is replacing that which was destroyed and only some $500 million so far from government.

    However no one can put a price tag and the human spirit in Joplin over the last year. Without such spirit, I wonder what things would look like today?



  3. I am sorry this happened. What a terrible loss. I admire your spirit and the generousity of every volunteer and benefactor. Thanks for sharing this.


  4. Bruce says:

    I’m a little surprised the camera continued to operate as long as it did. Clearly the lights fail well before the end of the video. Battery back-up power?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I don’t really know, Bruce, but the clip is authentic- issued by Mercy Hospital. Battery seems likely – another possible explanation might be debris over the camera lens.


  5. Thanks for telling us about the UAE contribution. Great to see other nations helping when Americans most need it. Prayers for Joplin, as you all recover.


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