Joplin five years later: healing and scars

It was warm and humid that Sunday when their world was destroyed.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the graduating seniors of Joplin High School in Missouri hurled their caps into the air. At Harmony Heights Baptist Church, the Rev. Charlie Burnett soon stepped up to deliver a sermon. Out on Range Line Road, delivery driver Daniel Fluharty arrived for his shift at Pizza Hut.

Then a warning siren pierced the air, and rain fell in a torrent.

At 5:34 p.m. on May 22, 2011, one of the most devastating tornadoes in history touched down just outside Joplin. The roaring, black mountain of spinning air gouged out the heart of this city with brutal, cataclysmic force.

In its wake: 161 dead, at least 13 of them children. A thousand people lurched from the destruction bloodied and injured, some with crushed limbs, others impaled.

Some 7,500 homes lay in mounds of twisted debris that stretched 6 miles. The 200 mph winds had destroyed 17,000 trees and tossed and bent thousands of cars and trucks, along with fire engines and helicopters.

That the city would rebuild was never in doubt. Chain saws, together with a defiant air of hopeful determination, emerged immediately. The first request for a building permit was filed the next day.

Less certain was how the city’s 50,000 residents would respond after witnessing such utter ruination.

“We were worried people would leave and not come back,” said Troy Bolander, Joplin’s director of planning, development and neighborhood services. “We called down to Katrina, and some communities lost 30 percent of their population.”

Their worries have calmed.

Five years later, challenges remain for the people of Joplin, and some wounds are unhealed, but so much of the city has returned that if not for saplings where trees once stood, one might never know there had been a storm.

Thousands of new homes, a new high school, grade schools, fire stations and a hospital have risen from the tornado’s scar. A new public library is going up. Tornado shelters were not made a requirement for new construction, but about nine out of 10 new buildings include at least one.

Ninety percent of destroyed or damaged businesses reopened.

The population, meanwhile, is up an estimated 175 people since the tornado. A new public arts movement with murals and sculptures, many inspired by the storm, has blossomed.

Although many external wounds have healed, deep and lasting grief remains, along with psychological and emotional wounds. Since the storm, mental health cases that include post-traumatic stress have more than doubled in Joplin.

Christal Allen, who worked at the destroyed Meadows Care Center nursing home, can no longer drive down Connecticut Avenue because of the carnage she saw there. Two volunteers who carried out the dead and performed triage at the Greenbriar nursing home, a sister facility where 11 people died, even now cannot talk about that night.

Said one Meadows employee: “I can still hear the screams.”

Russell Downs, then a paramedic, now a captain for the city’s Metro Emergency Transport System, parked his ambulance that evening at 24th and Main.

More than 200 walking wounded staggered toward the rig for triage. Downs, 36, recalls one man lurching naked down the street, his clothes ripped off by the wind. Others held their intestines in their hands.

Far less obvious, he said, is the massive and unseen psychological trauma that is everywhere today.

“We still see people who are struggling,” Downs said. “The PTSD, the suicidal thoughts. I don’t think the public is really aware of it.”

The Joplin tornado’s path of destruction began just west of the city. Along that same path, one can chart the city’s renewal and change and get a sense of what has yet to be done.

What does Joplin look like five years after the EF-5 tornado?

Changed neighborhoods

“I can still see it, still see it. I can’t help it,” Ed McAllister, 55, said of the twister that touched down less than a mile and a half west of his home.

McAllister’s neighborhood along South Winfield Avenue was among the first demolished. The tornado was 150 feet away when he slammed his front door and raced to the basement with family members.

They survived. Almost every house on his block – most of them larger and expensive, like his at 3,900 square feet – was demolished. The McAllisters wondered whether they should abandon what had become a depressing and ruinous landscape.

But they stayed, as did nearly every one of their neighbors. So did the majority of Joplin homeowners, particularly those who were well insured.

Others did not. Empty lots now dot Joplin. Many neighborhoods that were in the storm’s path have changed as older people who lived in older homes moved on.

The storm struck the poor and uninsured harder than anyone. Habitat for Humanity has since completed 105 homes in Joplin.

But new homes, small to large, now thickly populate the massive scar that cut the city in half. Many blocks look like new housing developments because, in a way, they are. The McAllisters were among thousands of homeowners who expanded their properties, buying all or parts of adjoining lots, often at a fraction of their former worth.

On South Wall Avenue, closer to the center of town, Laura Teverow, 60, and her husband, Paul, 65, built a new and better home and expanded her master garden after buying the lot next door.

“This sounds weird when I say it,” Laura Teverow said. “For us, in a weird way, it’s been a blessing.”

Hallowed ground

Less than a mile away, at the corner of 26th Street and Maiden Lane, is where St. John’s Regional Medical Center once stood, across the street from Cunningham Park.

This is where the international media congregated. To the world viewing Joplin, this spot – with devastation from horizon to horizon, including the blackened, empty skeleton of St. John’s – became ground zero.

Five years later, ground zero has become hallowed ground.

“Still very emotional to be here,” said Sharell Questelle-Eddy, 48, a former St. John’s emergency room nurse.

That night, Questelle-Eddy worked to exhaustion to evacuate the hospital of sick, wounded and dying patients.

St. John’s is now gone. Questelle-Eddy spoke inside a gazebo, topped by a cross, that sits upon a hill created in part from the ruins of the former hospital. A 16-acre park, with a pond and a walking trail, is being constructed on the St. John’s land around it. Last year, a new $465 million Mercy Hospital Joplin, built to withstand an EF-5 tornado, opened 3 miles to the south.

Cunningham Park itself is now equal parts playground – with jungle gyms, a basketball court, a pool – and a memorial garden.

By the storm’s first anniversary, the city had planted 161 trees to honor the dead. A butterfly garden surrounds three house-shaped steel frameworks that represent lost homes. A reflection pond was created, with a plaque dedicating it to all the children who “will never play in this park again.” A large sculptural ring, made to resemble a wristband, bears the date of the storm and honors volunteers with the inscription “The Miracle of the Human Spirit.”

“It’s very relaxing here,” Madison Tomlin, 23, said as she watched her two young sons play on the ring. “Every time I come here, I think of the tornado. … Some things are better. But it still takes healing.”

One bench has a compartment under its seat that contains a notebook and a pen for visitors to write their thoughts.

One woman, suffering bouts of paralysis after a car wreck, wrote that the park inspired her:

“Just like when the storm hit all those years ago, I am given a new beginning. I am reminded today of how many strifes we must overcome in our life. This park reminds me that anything is possible.”

Hidden pain

Three-quarters of a mile east, the tornado struck the Greenbriar nursing home at 2502 S. Moffet Ave., killing 10 residents and one employee. The nursing home is gone. Homes along the path have been rebuilt.

The Greenbriar will be rebuilt, too, but in a different part of town.

“It’s nice to have a new beginning,” said Mike Ulmer, vice president of LTC Consulting, which operated Greenbriar and Meadows. “You want to start fresh.”

A replacement for Meadows, called Communities of Wildwood Ranch, already has opened on the west side of town.

The destroyed nursing homes can be seen as emblems of hidden suffering.

After the tornado, Greenbriar was among the most horrific scenes in Joplin. No wall was left standing, and debris buried residents alive and dead.

Jennifer Aguilar worked that day and had left for home. When the storm hit, staff members filled her phone with texts. One proclaimed: “The Greenbriar is gone.” The last was one word: “Help.”

“It wasn’t really a second home. It was my first home,” Aguilar said. “It was like losing part of my family.”

As she talked about that night recently, she started to cry. The emotions were nearly as raw as they were five years ago.

Cases of anxiety, depression and PTSD are persistent in Joplin.

Mary Parrigon, executive director of the Ozark Center, a mental health facility, said the storm created “trauma upon trauma.” The consequence has been a flood of patients.

The center logged 650 PTSD cases a year before the storm, she said. It now treats 1,650.

Trauma’s symptoms can last years.

“We try to put it in the back of our minds, move forward and be excited about all the change,” said Monica Wammack, who worked at the Meadows and now works at Communities of Wildwood Ranch. “But when that first siren goes off, boy, it’s right back.”

Open for business

The storm ground buildings into splinters. Just to the east, at 26th Street and South Byers Avenue, it consumed the Cut Loose Salon.

Today, a framed construction permit that reads “Tornado #1” hangs inside the salon, which was rebuilt within six weeks of the storm. Residents view the date on the permit as a symbol of Joplin’s resolve.

“They were the first to start rebuilding,” one resident said.

“It gave you hope,” said Debbie Fort, former principal of the destroyed Irving Elementary School. “You’d see them out there rebuilding and know that Joplin was going to be OK.”

Owner Diana Collins remains proud. Husband Darren is a contractor.

“He gets it done,” she said.

The Joplin Chamber of Commerce had a team on the streets within two days, talking with business owners who had lost everything or were looking at hefty repairs.

“They were giving resources and asking, ‘What else, what else do you need?’ ” said Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce and one of the few city leaders still in his post five years after the tornado.

Roughly 530 businesses saw their operations destroyed or significantly damaged. Only about 40, including medical and dental offices, indicated they would not reopen. More than 5,000 employees were affected, with about 3,000 of those kept on payroll for some period of time.

Since the storm, more than 300 new businesses have come to Joplin.

‘Building for tomorrow’

Leaders can see now that the cleanup was just the start.

“Then it became, ‘What’s the longer-term view?’ ” O’Brian said. “Within that third or fourth year, the debates and differences of opinion on ‘OK, what’s next?’ started getting deeper.”

The unity that enveloped Joplin in the first few years after the storm faded as personalities clashed. Ultimately, the City Council fired the city manager.

But many today agree the unity seems to be back. They see everyone focused on the future, and especially on an osteopathic medical school that is being built by the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.

“That’s going to be the most impactful thing,” bringing jobs, students and new investment, said developer Jimmer Pinjuv. “That medical school will change the economics of this town.”

Then there’s the new Joplin High School at 2104 Indiana Ave., which stands as a glittering example of reconstruction. It has science labs, a coffee shop and career and technology centers.

Some hold that the $125 million price tag also stands as a too-lavish example of where some of Joplin’s leaders went wrong. They insist that the school district and city needed only to replace what they had before.

The criticism extends to the new Joplin library.

“Do we need a new library?” one resident asked. “The other one wasn’t even damaged in the storm.”

The town’s old library is downtown and away from the tornado’s path. But leaders contend it has been inadequate for years and isn’t thoroughly accessible to people with disabilities. Plus, the new library – mostly paid for with a federal grant – is being built in one of the tornado-torn areas and is expected to bring more development.

“We’re not building for today. We’re building for tomorrow,” said Bolander, the city planning manager.

The city initially entered into an agreement with a Texas development firm, Wallace Bajjali, to redevelop the storm-torn area and spur more growth. But that fizzled, and ultimately the city cut ties with the firm and sued. A Jasper County judge last year entered a $1.4 million default judgment against the firm, according to published reports.

A state audit faulted Joplin for its dealings with the master developer.

“We could have … put heads together with our council and used that money more wisely,” said Harmony Heights pastor Burnett. “We were trying to make this a model city. And we don’t need to be a model city.”

He and others across Joplin say the sense of unity that was so strong in the early days has started to return. City leaders are concentrating on finishing storm-related projects, funded by federal grants, by the end of 2019.

The tornado was so powerful it sucked up manhole covers, and debris got into the stormwater and sewer systems.

“Before you can do anything above ground with infrastructure, you have to do it below,” Bolander said. “This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint.”

‘We will never forget’

A small marker near 20th Street and Texas Avenue marks where the body of a 12-year-old boy was found after the tornado. A wooden sculpture of an eagle inside the high school bears the date of the storm.

And a metal plaque outside the new Pizza Hut takes anyone who reads it back to the day.

“In remembrance of our Pizza Hut family and friends lost in the Joplin tornado of May 22, 2011. We will never forget.”

Throughout Joplin, along the path of the storm and even outside it, are signs that this town will always remember that fourth Sunday in May five years ago. It’s one way residents say they can move on – by not forgetting those who died, those who were injured and those who rushed to Joplin to help.

“Just the outpouring that came in after the storm inspired me,” said Fluharty, who was inside the old Pizza Hut’s walk-in cooler when the tornado hit. “Makes me want to live every day like it’s my last. Because I thought it was my last day.”

Fluharty and others in town take pride in the new businesses, new neighborhoods and fresh look. Even if there is still work to be done.

“When you live and breathe it and look at it, you kind of say there are still some holes here,” O’Brian said. “There are still some things that haven’t come back like what we hope, but look at the broader community. We are a lot farther along than we would (have) ever dreamed possible.”

As Diana Collins of the rebuilt Cut Loose Salon put it: “Other people who have devastation need to look at us and say, ‘If Joplin can do it, we can do it.’

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