Joplin tornado 10 years later: How the city became stronger after the storm

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JOPLIN, Mo. (KODE) – When the EF-5 tornado swept through Joplin in 2011, the focus at city hall changed in an instant.

It was “All Hands on Deck” in a search effort and a commitment to recover. Some of those programs even continue today.

“I heard the crack of glass breaking out of the windows around us. And then we started getting telephone calls,” says Gary Shaw, city council member.

Shaw quickly learned his city had sustained serious tornado damage.

It wasn’t long before he got a firsthand view of just how bad it was during a ride along the path of destruction with a Joplin police officer.

“And I thought I was in another world. I mean I thought I was someplace else, it certainly wasn’t Joplin. And none of those landmarks that we knew,” says Shaw.

He knew there was a lot of work to be done, both for city leaders and city workers.

Emergency responders combing through the destruction for survivors and victims, plus a massive cleanup to get rid of nearly three million cubic yards of debris.

“It was amazing to watch the streets being cleared and the properties been cleared. Yeah, there was some challenges, you know,” Shaw recalls.

One of the issues was how to let tornado survivors the next step in the recovery and what help was available.

“Obviously, people did not have a TV, they didn’t have a house in some cases, they may not have a car to listen to a radio. So we needed to find ways to reach out to people,” says Lynn Onstot, Joplin City public information officer.

An emergency operations center was the headquarters for all the decision making.

They had staged mock disasters in the past, so there was a game plan, but the sheer magnitude of the destruction caused unforeseen issues.

“We didn’t have enough phone lines; we didn’t have enough computers, you know our IT department kicked into gear,” says Onstot.

It wasn’t always what to do, but sometimes what not to do: like a circus volunteering elephants for the clean up.

“So my news release said you know circus animals are not condoned to do debris removal, even though they’re offered and we appreciate everybody’s help. Just was not a good idea,” Onstot said.

Finding shelter for homeless survivors was crucial, both in the short term and more permanent sites.

City workers coordinated with FEMA to install 586 temporary housing units just weeks after the storm.

“It was a it was an area where there was a bunch of motorhomes set in place and people could stay there,” says Shaw.

New construction also went under the microscope, with the city looking was strategies to reinforce future homes and businesses.

That included requiring hurricane clips to keep the roof on a structure in high winds.

“There was importance in making sure we had things like those clips,” said Shaw.

There were also much bigger decisions to make, with $158 million in federal disaster grants leading to a new library, Joplin Senior Center, 20th Street overpass, and significant infrastructure upgrades.

“And our pipes are all worn out. A lot of the lot of our streets and things we’re wearing one so we end up with a third of our city being rebuilt, you know, and with help from money that we wouldn’t have had ourselves, you know,” says Shaw.

Ten years later, Shaw still mourns the 161 lives lost to the storm but sees a bright future ahead for Joplin.

“We have a great city, and you know I made a statement several times lately that I believe Joplin’s greatest days are ahead of us.”

PHOTO GALLERY: JOPLIN TORNADO

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