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Reflections on recovery five years after the EF5 Joplin Tornado

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Volunteers from Home Depot bearing a banner gathered for a portrait.

Volunteers from Home Depot bearing a banner gathered for a portrait after rebuilding a home for the Lacey family in Joplin.

By Becky Shreiber

For Ozarks Living Magazine

Part One of Two reports

JOPLIN, Mo. – Joplin recently marked the five-year anniversary of an EF5 tornado that left a wake of unimaginable destruction and devastation in the community. This five-year benchmark was a time for many to reflect on the losses that resulted from the disaster on May 22, 2011, but it also serves as a testament to the resiliency and persistence of the citizens of Joplin. Their fortitude and collaboration with countless volunteers and organizations has led to a massive rebuilding effort. While this unforeseen act of nature has indeed changed the Joplin and surrounding areas forever, it has also offered new insights into how resources and recovery efforts can be mobilized in the aftermath of a sudden catastrophe.

The monstrous tornado that struck Joplin rampaged its way through one of the most developed areas in the city, and at the worst part of its 38-minute duration was a mile wide with wind speeds of approximately 300 miles per hour. The consequences of this fierce act of weather were the loss of 161 lives, over 1,000 injured survivors and nearly 18,000 residents were displaced from their damaged or destroyed homes. In an instant, the people of Joplin went from bracing for a tornado to living in the aftermath of one of the worst tornados in U.S. history. But the best of human nature had a resounding answer to the worst of Mother Nature, as a swell of sympathy and compassion, gave way to a flood of first responders, volunteers and organizations that rapidly moved into the city to help those who were left to rebuild their lives.

University of Missouri Extension was part the recovery effort from the very beginning. Many of the first responders that aided in rescue and recovery efforts in the critical hours following the tornado were trained through the MU Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute (MU FRTI). Their extensive training and special skillset were vital in searching for survivors in the estimated three million cubic yards of residential debris generated by the disaster. As survivors were pulled from the rubble and tended to, a new kind of chaos ensued as families and friends separated in the storm struggled to navigate in their altered surroundings.

The birth of the Joplin Tornado Info Facebook Page (JTI), about two hours after the tornado hit, played a pivotal role in helping many survivors wade through the confusion. This social media page became a hub of valuable information for those seeking basic resources, like food, shelter and medical attention. David Burton, civic communication specialist with MU Extension, joined the project within the first 24 hours and worked in conjunction with the page’s founders, mother-daughter team-Rebecca and Genevieve Williams.

Power outages made the Joplin Tornado Info page even more of a prized resource since those seeking help and information could access the site with their mobile devices. Shortly after the site was launched, it gained upwards of 56, 300 followers and had over 26 million viewed posts. This unique platform became an electronic bulletin board for the community where both individuals and organizations could interact by posting queries and answers. The page was also a great resource to those providing aid by offering a quick and efficient way to mobilize volunteers. Keeping the site updated with the most current and relevant information was a 24-hour job for the site’s administrators. The project grew to include the City of Joplin, Joplin Schools, the Red Cross, all of the area’s utility companies, Zimmer Radio group, KODE-TV, journalism students from area colleges, and the University of Missouri Extension.

This Facebook site was instrumental in uniting the community in its goal to survive, and as weeks and months unfolded it proved to be extremely important as the focus shifted from survival to recovery. For example, under the direction of Burton, MU Extension produced a video showing how to avoid injuries when performing recovery work, and soon after it was posted on the JTI page it was viewed over 23,800 times. In addition to videos like these, local MU Extension specialists also helped by identifying educational resources that could help disaster victims begin to put their lives back together. Information on how those affected could financially recover from the disaster was put together and distributed through a variety of media outlets. In a similar way, Jasper County’s Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD) and their Long-Term Recovery Committee used several websites including the JTI Facebook page to disperse information to the public.

The effects of the tornado are still being felt today, but so are effects of the Joplin Tornado Info page. The social media page is still active and continues to shepherd the community by posting information about disaster recovery and other topics of local interest. The creation of this page is a remarkable touchstone that highlights the profound and potentially lifesaving applications of social media. The speed at which the page developed along with the massive user response set a precedent for how social media can be used in the wake of a disastrous event. Rebecca and Genevieve Williams along with David Burton penned a book to share what they learned about the process of setting up a social page for disaster response. The book, Using Social Media in Disaster Recovery, acts as a guide for anyone interested in learning how to use social media platforms for their community in both pre and post disaster scenarios.

The successes and benefits of the JTI page would not have been possible if not for caring individuals that donated their time. The same can be said for the larger effort to rebuild the city. One 2013 FEMA report estimated that more than 176,869 citizen volunteers from across the country provided more than 1.1 million hours of service by helping to clean up, repair and perform construction work. Labor of this monumental scale was badly needed and very much appreciated by the citizens of Joplin.

Becky Schreiber served as an intern for the University of Missouri Extension Service. She attended Ozarks Technical College.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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