Five Years Later-Volunteerism and Resiliency Central to Recovery Effort

May 18, 2016

Five years ago, this section of Joplin was littered with debris after an EF-5 tore through the city, killing 161 people. Today, the area known as “ground zero” at Cunningham Park has been rebuilt with many memorials, a children’s play area, and peaceful Butterfly Garden and overlook.

Lynn Onstot, the city’s public information office, explains the significance of this site as it was a central region of devastation when the storm hit.   In the first days after the tornado this park became gathering place for media, press conferences and volunteers to come together after the storm.  Today, Cunningham Park has many memorials within its ground including a volunteer tribute memorial recognizing the countless man-hours and people who helped, and continue to help, with the recovery effort.

Memorial dedicated to 161 persons who lost their lives in the EF5 tornado-at Cunningham Park
Credit Theresa Bettmann / KSMU

According to data compiled by the city after the storm, more than 7,500 dwellings were damaged or destroyed, affected 17,000 people.  That left much work to be done.  Sam Anseln, Joplin city manager, says an overwhelming show of community support began moments after the storm cleared.   

“A deluge of volunteers come in and we’ve have over 180,000 volunteers that we know of, have come in since 2011 to help us with our recovery.  So that’s with clean up, debris removal, building houses, rebuilding parks—it’s been pretty remarkable to see the recovery and the pace,” says Anseln.

In fact, Anseln explains, over 1.5 million hours of service was reported from registered agencies. 

However, that figure does not account for the involvement of what Anseln refers to as a tight-knit community. Having only moved to Joplin a matter of weeks before the storm hit, Anseln says he is impressed by the community’s resiliency.

“I heard story after story of residents who dug themselves out of their basements or crawlspaces, went next door, grabbed a chainsaw and started helping their neighbors,” Anseln shares.

Mayor Mike Seibert attributes the overwhelming outside volunteer and financial support from across the country and even internationally to Joplin’s community character.

“Our citizens here just had an incredible resilient backbone when this storm hit and people from around the country saw that.  I think that inspired a lot of people to want to come and help.  You know, when you’ve that kind of outside help and energy coming in that keeps our citizens energized and hopeful,” says Seibert.

Credit Theresa Bettmann / KSMU

Troy Bolanger is Joplin’s Planning and Development director.

“I think the secret to that is actually relationships.  We formed those relationships prior to the disaster—in fact we had two severe ice storms in the years prior to the tornado—and I think that really helped us prepare for the recovery effort because we already had those relationships,” Bolander explains.

Terry Watcher is the co-chair of Joplin Proud, a non-profit group of volunteers dedicated to acknowledging the significant day in Joplin’s history.  Watcher says the five year mark after the tornado is a way to recognize and thank all of those who have helped and share what has been learned.

Watcher’s home was not damaged by the tornado, but becomes tearful when talking about St. John’s Regional Medical Center – now Mercy - where she once worked as a vice president of missions.  From large businesses like the hospital to smaller homegrown ones, many were severely damaged or destroyed that fateful day. 

Judy Petty is owner of Frank’s Lounge on South Main in Joplin.  This 45-year-old business started by her late husband in 1970 was leveled in the storm, taking with it years of memories and memorabilia that could not be replaced.  Only a few things survived.

“There was one or two pictures found in the rubble with nothing wrong with them.  Spudz Mackenzie—the Budweiser dog—was sitting unhurt, but what he was sitting on was completely gone.  Everything was destroyed.  There was just a few things you could dig out that could be saved,” Petty remembers.

Judy Petty, owner of Frank's Lounge.
Credit Theresa Bettmann / KSMU

Petty shared her first response was not to rebuild as she was 70 years old at the time.  But that feeling lasted briefly and she changed her mind.  With community help and support, Frank’s Lounge re-opened six-months to the day later on October 21, 2011.  Petty, now 75, says when she gets up early each morning she asks herself “why do I do it…”

“But once I get going, then I know.  This is a lounge that everybody knows everybody and everybody helps everybody.  We’re more of a family and close friends than [a place] where you walk in and have a beer and walk out,” Petty shares.

Spudz Mackenzie has a special place behind the new bar, not a scratch to be seen.  Above the bar many donations made to Petty of special decanters and other memorabilia to replace what had been lost.  She’s happy with the new place, and knows her husband would be proud too. 

Petty, just one example of rebuilding from the rubble, illustrates the symbol Joplin has adopted to signify renewal—the Butterfly.  Terry Watcher with Joplin Proud says this emblem was chosen and can be seen in various memorials around town because it signifies new beginnings.

“We’re strong and we’re going to keep going, and we’re going to get this job done.  We’ve done pretty well so far,” Watcher says.