May 22, 2011

Driving through Joplin takes you back in time to a simpler era long ago with clapboard houses and country stores. As the character Scout said at the beginning of the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, “{it} was a tired old town.” But as I was driving through Joplin and enjoying the neighborhoods and the fact that there are no tall buildings, I see a strip, about 1/2 mile up to 1 mile wide in places, running through town from west to east that is either empty fields or new construction and knowing the reason makes me sad. At about 5:30 p.m. on May 22, 2011, a force E5 tornado ripped through the heart of Joplin, killing over 160 people and destroying everything in it’s way.

A Wikipedia article states that there was so much force, up to 200 mph, that concrete and steel infrastructure was ripped right up and even semi-trucks were tossed hundreds of yards. The only really tall structure around was the nine-story St. John’s Medical Center with a helipad. This building had to be torn down after the storm and completely re-built. Cunningham Park, across the street, is Joplin’s first historic park and it was completely ravaged. The park has now been rebuilt with an outdoor memorial incorporated into the walking experience.

I took my dogs to Cunningham Park on Saturday morning, July 20, 2019, to learn about the memorial and spend some quiet reflecting time. Although I had used some video clips and the stories from this horrific event as part of a lesson when I was teaching 7th grade science, along with stories from Katrina and other disasters, I had never taken the time to learn the details. After returning from the memorial, I went online and these are the things I learned.

  • The tornado was actually a series of funnels and increased in size as it traversed the city of Joplin from west to east. At it’s largest, it was estimated to be a mile wide.
  • Many of the residents did not react to the sirens that started 20 minutes before the tornado touched down (I can understand this because a majority of tornado warnings are false alarms and you can’t live your life in fear all the time. After living in Oklahoma City for two months during tornado season, I adopted the same attitude).
  • “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” helped in October of that same year by working with volunteers to rebuild seven of the houses by Cunningham Park. They also recreated the historic fountain from 1909 based on old photos and postcards.
  • This event saw the largest insurance payout ever in the state of Missouri.

And I was able to learn from two first person accountings.

  • Read a heart-stopping first person account by local writer Christine Sempetrean Smith on her blog page. “The Joplin Tornado, Part 1: The Storm.”
  • One of the people in the office at the Joplin KOA chatted with me and recounted a few tidbits about that awful week here. I don’t know if she was one of the owners or an employee and I didn’t ask but she was a very congenial elderly lady and I enjoyed visiting with her. Two of her stories follow:
    • A young man had gotten a tattoo the week before that his parents did not approve of (you can see where this is going…). Following the tornado, he was transported to a Kansas City medical center but was not identifiable due to facial damage and no ID. Eventually, he was able to be identified by his tattoo and was reunited with his family, who were forever grateful for that tattoo.
    • She also told me of a man whose house was damaged but he was able to rebuild it to living conditions and he had no intention of moving. However, following the destruction, the city of Joplin had changed the zoning in the damage path to commercial rather than residential. He was forced to sell due to new places of business being built over that area.

Driving through this area of Southwest Joplin, you do notice the scenery changing from older bungalows and narrow streets lined with large trees to a newness that shouldn’t be there — large swaths of empty fields with small trees, shiny new road construction and contemporary places of business. When you think about why the scenery changes, it can just make you really feel strong emotions.

Cunningham Park has several areas memorializing the volunteers, those who lost their lives, and the children who will never play again. There is a small parking lot off W. 26th and there are walking paths throughout. There are also two public restrooms and several picnic areas, in addition to children’s playground equipment. Dogs who are leashed are allowed in the park.

The Plaque and the Fountain

The Memorial to the Volunteers

The Three Houses — Rebuilt as Memorials with a butterfly garden within

The Children’s Reflection Pond

The Path of Destruction

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