Exploring Joplin, Missouri, Recovering From Disaster

The most terrifying thing about touring the disaster zone caused by the May 22 EF-5 tornado here is the randomness of the devastation, the sight of a vacant lot where a house once stood, literally across the street from a home still whole. The destruction that the storm wrought is already disappearing from view as the Corps of Engineers and contractors raze what’s left of damaged structures. The empty lots, the clean slabs, the bare earth, these vacant holes in the cityscape were made so by backhoes and clean-up teams, not the winds and flying debris.

I downloaded an aerial image file for Google Earth, collected by aircraft on May 24, that shows in sickening detail the tornado’s random walk through the city. Much, but not all, of the clean up has been done: A white van tossed against a fence on 24th Street, seen in the imagery, was still sitting there on August 1.

Traveling the American Road – Joplin, Missouri

By July 22, the city had issued roughly 1,700 building permits for reconstruction, as it simultaneously builds a mobile home park for storm survivors along Highway 171, north of downtown. Christened Jeff Taylor Field for a Kansas City-area police officer who died after suffering wounds during storm cleanup efforts, it will soon have nearly 500 homes. Many are already in place, and contractors continue working in the hot dust, grading sites and hooking up utilities in the 108-degree heat. Whether any much-needed shade trees will be part of the temporary development remains in doubt.

To orient myself to the destruction, I spoke with Lindsey Henry, a Texas native who moved to Joplin to report on the disaster for KOAM and KFJX and live with her extended family. She’s in the tornado zone every day, she says, looking for stories, watching the recovery and likely breathing in asbestos dust and toxic fumes from the wreckage. It’s a little-discussed aspect of the clean-up efforts, she points out, as is the tent city that’s popped up south of town, drawing people not affected by the tornado to the area to take advantage of services for victims.

Visitors to Joplin, volunteers or otherwise, often head to St. Mary’s, a church that was destroyed but for its 20-foot-high iron cross, now standing watch over the colossal field of debris. At dusk, a crew of demolition workers struck up a conversation. They’re from Kansas City, in town to rip down the shells of buildings here. They were surprisingly dispassionate about the work, even the job of tearing down the church.


As we chatted, a woman came up to fill them in about her brother, who was working a job site nearby. Two thugs, she said, had assaulted him in order to steal scrap from the wreckage. The police have picked up a suspect, but she warned the workers to watch for more crimes and be on the lookout for a white crew-cab pickup.

More than two months after the storm ruined 30 percent of the city, Joplin is making surprisingly fast progress. Barren landscapes persist, but with a cleanup of 3 million cubic yards of debris almost complete, the city is looking forward to what’s next. What, on this clean slate of a downtown, can be built to bring Joplin back stronger than before?

One local start-up has an answer. Rebuild Joplin is an ultra-light collective that sprung up after the storm to connect locals to the resources they’d need to rebuild. Started in less than 36 hours, it was so slick, so effective, so exactly what was needed in the wake of the large-scale destruction, FEMA interviewed co-founders Garen McMillian and Mark Kinsley to see if it was part of a scam. The agency was instead pleasantly surprised.

“This is helping Joplin maximize all the resources that are out there,” Garen says. “If you can minimize duplication–you have a lot of people trying to do the same things out there–if we can keep the communication lines open so everybody’s aware of what’s already being done and they’re not reinventing the wheel, then that’s that much more energy that can be expended toward something concrete for Joplin.”

The idea is simple: A website that aggregates information and connects people in need of services to the already extant agencies and people who can provide them. In the wake of a large-scale disaster, the site was optimized for mobile devices, which was the only way many survivors had to access the web. As the needs of storm victims evolve away from basics–Joplin has more donated water, food and clothing than it has places to store it–the site’s mission continues to adapt to meet more challenging needs.

“Here we are today with much more complicated needs,” Mark says. “Once you have a place to live and have clothes and some food, where do you go from there? We’re having to adjust what we do a bit, while staying on mission. Now the needs are really complicated, sophisticated needs, and we’re trying to adapt to that. It’s really easy for people to hand someone a canned good–and it feels good–but what do you do when somebody needs help with tax preparation information that relates to your FEMA application? It’s a different skill set and we’re having to adjust and adapt.”

Photo of the day: Roll cloud over Wisconsin

Tornadoes are everywhere this season, but where there are tornadoes, there are sometimes roll clouds. This shot was taken by me while I rode in the passenger seat through a wicked storm in Western Wisconsin last sumer. As my fiance and I drove closer to the rotating cloud, a sight we’d never before seen, we were a little intimidated. The radio was relaying to us tornado warnings and despite the presence of this ominous cloud, everything seemed eerily calm. As soon as we passed under the roll cloud, however, we were slammed with a torrential downpour of rain and hail. The storm darkened our field of vision tremendously. We found out later that day that this particular storm system had also spawned 3 separate tornadoes–fortunately, we didn’t see any of them.

A roll cloud is a type of Arcus Cloud. Roll clouds are low and tube-shaped and, generally speaking, pretty rare.

Learn about Tornados

*Breaking* St. Louis airport damaged and closed by tornado

The historic Lambert Field in St. Louis was damaged by an apparent tornado last night, wreaking havoc on the main terminal and disrupting operations. According to the Huffington Post, “The storm lifted the roof off Concourse C and sent plate glass flying everywhere. Four people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries after glass shattered as the storm hit.”

All inbound flights were diverted, while operations ground to a halt internally. As of this morning, no flights are operating in or out of the airport.

If you happen to be flying through Lambert Field this weekend, be sure to check your schedule for any cancellations. American Airlines Southwest Airlines flies the majority of routes out of Lambert, so that carrier may see the largest disruptions. American currently has a travel waiver available on their site here while Southwest has one here.

Luckily nobody was fatally injured in the storm. Lambert Field, however, will remain indefinitely closed until repairs can be made.

*update, we just received this youtube video from inside of STL airport during the action. Scary stuff!*

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Video: Mississippi tornado rips through power lines

A powerful storm system that produced damaging tornadoes tore through several states over the course of the last few days. Beginning in Oklahoma and Arkansas on Thursday, the storm moved through Mississippi on Friday and Alabama and Georgia. Eventually wreaking havoc on North Carolina and Virginia, this storm has claimed at least 35 lives in six states. With flash floods, softball-sized hail, and vicious tornadoes, homes have been demolished throughout the affected areas. The death toll is expected to rise today as the dust settles and the search for the missing continues.

This video was captured in Jackson, Mississippi–an area that was hit hard by the storm. Check out the flashes of color that erupt when the twister rips through power lines.

Billings Rimrock Auto Arena shredded by tornado

The MetraPark Entertainment and Trade Center in Billings, Montana was ravaged yesterday by a monstrous tornado. Several businesses in the Heights neighborhood also sustained heavy damage. The MetraPark’s Rimrock Auto Arena is a major concert and event venue in the region and draws tourists from across Montana and Wyoming.

The storm struck around 4:30 PM yesterday and was accompanied by heavy rain, hail, and lightning. The arena was scheduled to host the Antiques Roadshow this coming weekend and several other events throughout the summer. Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund toured the area Sunday and said, “A total disaster, absolutely nothing is left of it.” The is no word yet on when the arena will reopen or if events will be moved elsewhere while repairs are made.

*Warning, this video contains profanity.