The giant tornado that churned 6 miles through Joplin, killing 161 people and damaging or destroying 7,000 to 8,000 buildings, drew national attention in 2011.
Soon after, the attention turned to appreciation of the residents who demonstrated resilience in the face of grief and challenge.
One of those who led the recovery effort from that storm was then-Gov. Jay Nixon.
He spent nearly a year directing resources to help Joplin residents patch their lives and their city back together with everything from jobs to housing.
“I really get asked a lot,” Nixon said in a recent phone interview. “Why was Joplin different, not just the disaster but the recovery?
“If you look around the country, I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t think Joplin is praiseworthy for what was accomplished and is continuing to be accomplished in Joplin. But what was that magic sauce?
“But to me, the thing I like about Joplin, is it is a region of faith. It’s not just in the churches. It’s a place where you can still quote the Bible, and I did, and I do, and I will. I do think that is the magic of Joplin.”
Nixon watched the disaster unfold on television that Sunday night, May 22, 2011.
After that, he and his Cabinet worked into the night dispatching and planning immediate aid before leaving early the next morning to come to Joplin with help.
“We knew things were going to be bad, but we were stunned by the completeness of the destruction in many areas and the size of the debris field,” Nixon said. “I remember walking up the hill to get to the (former St. John’s) hospital and looked all the way down to where the tornado had come from and realized we were in a whole different magnitude of damage.”
As he walked the rise approaching the hospital, he saw the dark hulk of what only hours earlier had been a busy St. John’s Regional Medical Center. Strewn about were the twisted remains of the hospital’s air ambulance helicopter, mangled cars, and piles of brick, wood and metal.
“In many areas, we were not able to tell the difference between what was a brick house or a stick house or a school or a business. It was complete destruction.”
Though he had some idea of what the city experienced, the damage was worse than he expected. He had been in Joplin only the day before the tornado to speak at commencement exercises for Missouri Southern State University graduates.
Back in Jefferson City, Nixon had spent that early Sunday evening working out on gym equipment in the Highway Patrol office of the governor’s mansion, watching sports on TV. About 5:20 p.m., he got a call notifying him that three tornadic storm fronts appeared to be merging in Joplin. He turned the TV to the weather channel and was watching when the storm hit.
“We knew instantaneously the problem,” he said. “It was all hands on deck from the beginning.”
The patrol organized what became the largest law enforcement response in the state’s history. The State Emergency Management Agency began working to set up the around-the-clock coordination of responses by all levels of government along with efforts by volunteers, faith-based and private sector organizations.
Year of disaster
It was a year for disasters in Missouri.
A few weeks earlier, Missouri had lost a court challenge that resulted in the activation of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway by the Army Corps of Engineers, which caused extensive flooding to swamp the southeast part of the state. There also were floods in northwest Missouri. Three days after Joplin’s storm, a tornado hit Sedalia.
“There was a lot going on, but it was clear to us that the magnitude and the damage was in Joplin. It was hard to see how anybody lived through it,” Nixon said. The EF5 twister ground a mile-wide swath through the city from end to end and continued down the south edge of Duquesne.
Nixon remembered that a large tornado that had nearly leveled Greensburg, Kansas, a few years earlier chased off most of the town’s residents. He did not want that to happen in Joplin.
“So from day one of being there, one of the thoughts that was in the back of my head was, ‘How do you keep people here?’ That’s a regional area. Joplin gets folks from the Four States” who work, shop and visit.
The first jobs, though, were to locate Joplin’s dead and account for the missing.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol provided 330 troopers and nearly 90 civilian staffers who worked both in Joplin and from Jefferson City around the clock to do that and provide other services. The Missouri Division of Fire Safety led EMS response and mutual aid for rescue efforts.
The bodies of those killed were recovered and identified with the patrol taking on the solemn responsibility of locating families to deliver death notifications.
Public safety workers in the debris field faced other challenges.
Two police officers were injured by a nearby lightning strike the day after the storm while they were working at 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue. One of them, Officer Jeff Taylor, of Riverside, who had formerly worked in Webb City, was one who volunteered to come here. He was seriously injured May 23 when lightning struck the ground next to where he was working. He was hospitalized until his death June 3 that year.
The first weeks
Because of the debris, other problems were encountered. Just keeping tires on their vehicles was a challenge for the patrol. “Every time the patrol guys came down, they started bringing pickup trucks hauling tires.”
A few days later, Nixon met with local church pastors. He was concerned about the burdens they would face in helping devastated and grieving families.
“You need to take care of your flocks from a spiritual perspective,” he said. “You need to make sure they are seeing the longer-term future. If you have other problems, get them to us.”
He still today regards Joplin’s pastors as one of the community’s greatest strengths.
Nixon had state agencies pool their resources to set up a recovery center here where people could replace important lost documents such as driver’s licenses, car titles and birth certificates, and get help with insurance claims.
At a one-week memorial service, Nixon did not know what to expect, though often those ceremonies are sad.
“Certainly there was a somberness there, but I felt that people really dug into their spirit and their faith and were looking for a positive path forward. It was inspiring,” Nixon said.
After that, he had a meeting with then-superintendent of the Joplin School District, C.J. Huff. Huff told the governor school would reopen as scheduled on Aug. 17. A temporary high school, because Joplin High School was destroyed, was built inside a vacant store building at Northpark Mall in 55 days.
When school reopened, Nixon and others gathered in the superintendent’s office to hear the building principals report on enrollment, learning that about 97% of students returned to school.
“The folks down there were able to take the gains, take the successes, along the way and use those to inspire continued work,” Nixon said.
Monitoring the airA temporary field hospital for St. John’s was set up six days after the storm. The night of the tornado Nixon had directed the National Guard to disassemble a field hospital set up in Branson and move it to Joplin.
Another of those first orders was to move the patrol’s mobile communication center, called “Big Blue,” to Joplin.
“That first night for me, though nothing in comparison to what the people of Joplin had to go through, but we were on it from the get-go,” Nixon said.
The efforts to account for the missing within a week and an efficient and quick debris removal operation are cited by Nixon as key components of the disaster operation.
That rid the neighborhoods hit hardest of 1.2 million cubic yards of debris from 2,700 building lots along with public rights of way by the end of the summer.
“The other thing that we did we learned from 9/11,” Nixon said. “We installed air monitors all over so that as volunteers came down later or as people were working, we didn’t want to have happen what happened when the twin towers fell and you had so many people get sick.”
The air monitoring also gave volunteers the confidence to work in the debris zone, Nixon said. “Over 160,000 people came to help, and I think one of the reasons was we could guarantee that they were going to be breathing air that we had tested.”
Another help was the Disaster Recovery Jobs Program the state offered, Nixon said.
“Over 1,000 Joplin people were hired and paid — not a lot, but $10 or $11 an hour — to clean up their own neighborhoods. But it kept them there and it put money in there.”
The Missouri Governor’s Faith-Based and Community Service Partnership, which brought around 100,000 volunteers from churches and religious organizations to help, provided 688,000 hours of volunteer service. It was looked at by FEMA as a best practices way of providing help when there are large-scale needs.
Saturday ceremonyAlso important were the efforts of private employers such as St. John’s/Mercy Joplin, which kept all its workers on the payroll while a new hospital was being built. Nixon also credits Freeman Health System for attending to hundreds of the injured as well as other patients as the sole functioning hospital in the aftermath.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered temporary housing to those who lost their homes, the state launched a “Jumpstart Joplin” housing program.
That provided $22 million in state funding to build houses by providing builders with construction financing assistance. Buyers received help with down payments and there was funding also for some home repairs.
The Missouri Housing Development Commission also acted on the governor’s request to provide $94 million in tax credits for housing projects, which included apartment buildings for senior housing along with low-income and market rate housing projects.
Nixon will be the keynote speaker Saturday at the 10-year tornado anniversary ceremony in Cunningham Park. It will be a reunion for him to see all those with whom he worked and developed bonds, although he has stopped in Joplin in the interim to look around when traveling down Interstate 44.
When he and his wife, Georgeann, return here this time, “I’ll go by the high school and a couple of places where we were … but seeing some of the folks we were with nearly every day for nearly a year and seeing them in this context will be moving for Georgeann and me.”