This story is one of two focusing on tornado recovery – one from the point of view of a city – Joplin, Mo., which was devastated in 2011 by an EF-5 tornado, the costliest in U.S. history. The other point of view – personal, from a Xenia resident who watched the tornado hit the town in 1974 at the age of 9.
DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – Gary Shaw was attending church on Sunday, May 22, 2011 when an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo. The tornado killed 158 people, injured 1,150 people and caused $2.8 billion, the costliest in U.S. history.
The numbers can’t paint the picture of the tragedy like the words of Shaw, who is a 78-year-old grandfather and the mayor of Joplin for a second time.
“It didn’t take long,” Shaw said. “It was such a horrendous thing. People began going out into the area. We heard one of our hospitals were hit, people were pulling bodies out of everywhere. There were care facilities and nursing homes that had people killed.
“People were hauling the injured to the hospital while the storm was still happening, some were hauling as many as they could in the back of pickup trucks, anyway they could.”
Like Dayton, the generosity of people donating and volunteering was a pickup for the Joplin.
If you follow any any other disaster, they lose people, they move and leave. We lost a third of our city to this tornado, but we decided our main goal was we weren’t going to lose people.
“I was mayor the year before the tornado,” Shaw said. “So I had my name on a lot of documents still. I was getting calls from Australia and Japan; from people asking what they could do to help. They wanted to know what they could do. It seemed over night people were coming out of the woodwork wanting to help”
A local university set up facilitiles for receving bodies while morturaries volunteered help. Per federal training, local police and fire coordinated with the city and set up a command center. This is standard for any natural disaster, but what made Joplin different was those in the city and in leadership made a goal that changed how cities approach disasters.
“If you follow any any other disaster, they lose people, they move and leave,” Shaw said. “We lost a third of our city to this tornado, but we decided our main goal was we weren’t going to lose people.
“A year and a half later we had 1,500 more people living in Joplin than before the tornado.”
“Tragedy on so many levels”
After the tornado, the city setup an emergency morgue. The weeks after were funerals. Shaw said city and community leaders tried to attend as many services as they could, standing in the back.
The city manager at the time, Mark Rohr, pushed for an immediate cleanup
“One of the things that helped was the wisdom of our city manager at the time,” Shaw said. “We wanted to get emergency trucks and other equipment in. Immediately we started programs, if you could get onto your prperty, and get stuff to the curb we would haul away the debris. It took weeks and tons of debris.”
Shaw said clearing pathways as quickly as possible was key, people were able to get the injured quicker and back to their own property. It also set a tone for Joplin it was working as quickly as possible to rebuild.
The city was buoyed by volunteers and cooperation within the community.
“What impressed me the most, FEMA people came in and said our people just had a different attitude,” Shaw said. “I don’t want to say we were anything special, because I know this happens in a lot of communities. Human nature is, when you face a challenge, you rise to the occassion, and it creates some champions.
“When you go through hell, and that’s what it was, you look immediately to get people restoring and rebuilding,” Shaw said. “You don’t dwell on what you don’t have, but look at what you can hae. THat first year we saw a lot of that going on.”
FEMA trailers were setup near the airport and made available to tornado victims to live. They city received $158 million in funding from the federal government to help rebuild, but it needed to account for every dollar. Instead of handling it themselves, Joplin hired a firm to account for every dollar spent.
Volunteers kept the spirits of locals up. Shaw said the first week 30 truckloads of goods from all over the country arrived. He rememered one man from North Carolina arrived, said he worked construction. he helped Joplin set up a distribution center in a downtown parking lot. It had 17 trucks delivering and dropping off goods all the time and was the smallest of the 2-3 other distribution points in the city.
Donations poured in – the city set up an account t o handle it and assigned people to be responsible for it. Shaw said the money was mostly from churches, which the city put into a fund.
The negatives don’t disappear once the storm is over. Joplin dealt with heavy rains and thunderstorms the first week after the tornado.
A volunteer policeman from another part of Missouri was killed while watching out for looters. He was struck by lightning.
Fly-by-night construction companies came in and caused problems for people desperate to get their homes rebuilt.
“Those are battles you have to fight,” Shaw said. “You don’t dwell on those, you protect yourself, and each other, from that as best you can and you do what you can do, step by step.”
“We won’t be the place where the tornado hit“
On the first anniversary of the tornado, the city announced a march across town. It began on the east side of town, and walked the path of the tornado backward to the west – a symbolic erasure of the storm that took so many and cost so much.
“We planned on 1 to 3 thousand and it would put some fire into the community,” Shaw said. “We had 13,000 come. I had my knees operated on years ago, so I rode in a golf cart. People walked their dogs, pushed their children in strollers. We went to the high school, which had been blown down and was being rebuilt.”
Several years later, the Kansas City School of Medicine built a campus in town. It just announced an $80 million campus expansion to build a dental school.
Joplin’s recovery has become the model other cities are following.
Shawn said this week the Harris County Texas commissioner is visiting, along with several staff members. Harris County is where Houston is located – it’s the third largest county in the United States.
“They want to study what happened here, spend time with our staff,” Shaw said.
“The tornado, it’s part of our past. It’s there and we are making that part of our history. But Joplin isn’t the town where the tornado hit.”