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Joplin Optimistic in Recovery, Anxious to Help in Moore, OK

Joplin tornado ceremony
Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr speaks at Wednesday's ceremony. From L-R, Secretary Janet Napolitano, Gov. Jay Nixon, Dep. Assistant Sec. of Commerce for Economic Development Matt Erskine, Drury Professor Tracy Sooter, Joplin Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean, Councilman Gary Shaw, CART Chair Jane Cage, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern/Credit: Scott Harvey

Two years to the day that an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, killing 161 people, the city was greeted with near perfect weather, as thousands came out Wednesday to honor the lives of those lost, and reflect upon the continuing recovery effort. KSMU’s Scott Harvey was there.

Just hours before the ceremony at Cunningham Park, Melinda Underwood is trimming her backyard lawn at the corner of 26th St. and Pennsylvania Ave, a site that was within the path of destruction on May 22, 2011. It was about six blocks north, inside Underwood’s then apartment complex, where she could have easily become the storm’s 162nd victim.  

“We were sliding and my youngest had her legs wrapped around my chest as my legs started to go up to… being taken away I guess. And she wouldn’t let go and it was the longest, I think, six, seven minutes of my life,” Underwood said.

Driving east from the park along 26th Street, there are several empty lots and few large, developed trees. But there’s also an assortment of newly constructed homes. In fact, officials say more than 80 percent of the 7,500 that were destroyed have been either rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt. And while city leaders have chosen not to mandate the construction of safe rooms in new homes, they have taken steps to improve a structure’s stability, including requiring hurricane straps for roofs. For community members like Underwood, it’s the work of city officials, as well as the many volunteers, that have helped move the recovery effort along as planned.

“We had strangers from all over the world that came to help that didn’t have to. But chose to be away from their families to come help us get it together and figure out where we needed to go forward. So we’re just very blessed.”

“Absolutely wonderful. Couldn’t have done it without all the volunteers,” said Garrison.

The home of Atalaya Garrison’s mother was destroyed in the 2011 tornado. She says the dedication shown by volunteers over the last two years has inspired her to lend time to the recovery effort that’s just begun in Moore, Oklahoma.

The twister that struck the Oklahoma City suburb Monday was not lost during Wednesday’s ceremony in Joplin, where donations were being collected to benefit the city, and teams from southwest Missouri had already been deployed to assist in the area.

Governor Jay Nixon:

“As I said to folks around the country, when you come to Joplin to volunteer you come work with the people in Joplin, not for em. These folks here on those hot days, that first summer with no rain, 100 degree temperature, the people of Joplin are out working as hard as anybody. And that same spirit I think is going to happen in Oklahoma,” said Nixon.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who earlier in the day toured the wreckage in Moore, spoke of resilience, which along with the terms “resolve” and “revitalization” made up the theme for Wednesday’s event.

“The entire Joplin community played an important role in the recovery process. For example, deciding to build more resilient schools outside of the flood plain, develop stronger standards for home construction, and develop shared facilities for youth at storm shelters,” Napolitano said.

Napolitano would later present Jane Cage, chair of the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART), with the 2012 Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience, recognizing her superior leadership, effective preparation, response and recovery in the face of disaster.

At 5:41 p.m., the crowd shared in a moment of silence, to mark the time that the tornado touched down two years ago.

It was a ceremony that honored the dead, praised the hours upon hours of help, and expressed much optimism for the future. But folks in Tornado Alley are not oblivious to the risks they face each severe weather season, nor are they numb to the emotional element that comes when another community is devastated by a storm.  

Back at 26th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., two years after she was nearly swept away by that EF-5, Melinda Underwood and her children are working to balance their emotions while paying it forward.

“It’s hard for us to be happy sometimes when we’re sitting here OK and we see what’s going on in Oklahoma. They went through their closets yesterday, cleaned out all clothes, and shoes, and all that stuff, and that was the first thing they did. They were wanting to help in any way they can. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make a trip down there or not, but they know what it feels like,” said Underwood.

For KSMU news, I’m Scott Harvey.