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In this installment of our Sense of Community series, we examine the role Missouri Southern State University played in meeting the needs of the Joplin community after the May 22 tornado.
When the sirens sounded and an EF5 tornado tore through Joplin on May 22nd, few realized exactly what had happened in those few minutes and the magnitude of the disaster. However, it didn’t take long for residents, law enforcement, and first responders to begin to process the scene of destruction that stretched out before them.
The campus of Missouri Southern State University on the east side of the city was unharmed, a fact that became very important in the hours, days, and weeks following the tornado. MSSU had only recently committed to playing a key role in the event of a disaster…Rod Surber is the director of university relations.
“Only two weeks before, we had announced and signed an agreement with the American Red Cross that we would serve as a shelter area in case of a disaster. Those conversations had started, briefly, but as least there were some key players who knew each other and knew the direction we were going.”
Surber says multiple buildings and areas of campus opened up, and relief agencies got to work.
“Our health sciences building was put into use as a surge medical clinic. That just opened up this past year, September, 2010. It’s essentially a full-service hospital, so our nursing students would be fully trained and ready to go to work on day one. It includes a respiratory therapy facility, dental hygiene clinic, and all those facilities were called into action.”
The Leggett and Platt Athletic Center temporarily transitioned to a Red Cross shelter. The shelter that once was in the facility is now closed…but a couple of weeks ago when there were people still living there, Rod Surber drove me over to the athletic center so I could get a sense of how this facility had become a home to displaced residents.
“We’re pulling up in front of Young Gym and Leggett and Platt Athletic Center. You can see some people relaxing outside, enjoying the sunshine. They’re sitting on their front porch.”
Missouri Southern State University turned the facility over to the Red Cross and the residents who made this their home in the first few weeks after the tornado. Surber says the Red Cross is vigilant about protecting the privacy of those who live in shelters following a disaster. We pass a group of people and head inside. We meet Angela Statton-Hunt, who worked as the assistant shelter manager during the day. She praises the university for being a great partner with the Red Cross.
“They have bent over backwards to make sure we have everything we want, to the point of bringing in computers and printers, just everything for us. Their maintenance guys have been great. They don’t complain about anything, even cleaning up after clients, and they’ve done that. I actually locked myself out of one of the offices. Every time that happens, they’ve been there. The response is incredibly quick too. You ask for something and it’s there.”
Angela notes the university went above and beyond its initial commitment by providing shelter to pets in the lower level of the gym. She takes us into the area where residents have been sleeping on cots. The risers where fans would sit and watch ball games are now pushed up against the wall, and in one spot, there are stuffed animals tucked in among the cracks of the seats. At the far end of the gym, the stage is still partially set the way it was the night of the tornado…Joplin High School held its commencement here shortly before the tornado struck. On a column near the doors where residents go and in out of the sleeping area, there are cards hanging up…they’ve arrived from children all over the country. Angela says they are a real encouragement.
“This one says, ‘Just stay strong. For through all those cloudy days, there’s sunshine waiting to come. It will pour like rain. Things will get better. All you have to do is pray, for our loving God will answer your prayers.’ The outpouring has been phenomenal, even down to the youngest child.”
The Red Cross shelter at MSSU is closed. The remaining displaced residents have been moved to a shelter located in Webb City.
Rod Surber says it’s hard to say how much the university will be reimbursed for the expenses it incurred responding to the disaster.
MSSU officials say their job was made a bit easier because the spring semester had already ended when the tornado hit. Surber says it would’ve been difficult to do so much for the tornado relief effort if school had been in session…however, he notes, if the tornado had hit in the middle of the semester, the school still would’ve done its best to meet the needs of the community.