By Debby Woodin
Emily Tarter printed her message neatly in pink on the concrete at Cunningham Park: “We love Joplin.”
She labored on her chalk art Tuesday as thousands streamed into the park for the Day of Unity observance marking the one-year anniversary of the May 22 tornado that chewed its way a mile wide through Joplin and Duquesne. It claimed 161 lives.
“I was sad,” 9-year-old Emily said of her reaction to the storm that destroyed or damaged 7,500 homes and 550 businesses, with damage estimated to cost $2.8 billion. “I was very depressed.”
Even a year later, there are still tears, though Emily and others at the event said they are trying to mend.
Last year’s May 22 brought thousands of people out, searching piles of ruins for survivors and maneuvering debris-choked streets to get the injured to the hospital. This year, it brought an orderly procession of an estimated 6,000 for a Walk of Unity along a 3.7-mile stretch of memory lane through the tornado zone.
“This is everything we hoped it would be,” said Gary Shaw, a city councilman who served on the planning committee for the Day of Unity, as he watched people gather at the park for an anniversary ceremony.
“Look at our people,” he said. “A year ago they were crying, and now they’re smiling and having a good time.”
Emily said she felt depressed last year “because I love Joplin. I was born at St. John’s and used to play at Cunningham Park,” which also was destroyed by the storm and is being repaired. “I’m glad it’s come back,” she said of the park.
City Manager Mark Rohr opened Tuesday’s ceremony at the park.
“While there’s not too many things I’m certain of in this uncertain world, I am sure that I am very proud of the residents of Joplin. You should be proud of yourselves,” he said of the turnout at the park, estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000.
He remembered those lost in the storm, who were memorialized with a plaque unveiled Tuesday in the park and the planting of the last of 161 trees.
He also credited the 130,000 registered volunteers who have helped Joplin with what has been described as a recovery start unmatched by other similar disasters.
“Mere thanks are not enough,” Rohr said of the volunteers. “Please be assured you are part of the ‘Miracle of the Human Spirit’ and will forever be an important part of the city of Joplin.”
Rohr said that of the 7,500 homes affected by the storm, 61 percent are under permits to be rebuilt or have been repaired or rebuilt. He said a majority of the 550 businesses are already operating or being rebuilt.
One key in that recovery, he said, was the aid brought by Convoy of Hope, which delivered thousands of pounds of food and supplies to displaced residents and then started helping to rebuild houses.
Hal Donaldson, founder of Convoy of Hope, told Day of Unity participants in his keynote address that people from across the country have joined to help Joplin. They have been impressed by the willingness of residents to persevere and work hard to rebuild.
“Tonight we stand together as one, proud to call this our adopted home,” he said.
After he came to help, he saw tornado-stricken residents willing to do volunteer work to help others who they thought were hit harder than themselves. “It didn’t take me long to learn that this is the Joplin way,” Donaldson said of the selflessness and hard work he saw. “This community knows the power of a warm smile and a helping hand. You know how to lift up the fallen, and how to restore hope to friends and neighbors in need. This is what America is all about. I wish every American could meet you face to face.”
Lynn Britton, president and chief executive officer of Sisters of Mercy Health System, told residents that the land where St. John’s Regional Medical Center has stood for 40 years is being donated as the site for a new elementary school, the Stained Glass Theatre and a museum. He said Mercy plans to rebuild the chapel that was part of the hospital where it stood before the storm, along with an amphitheater that can be used for community and family events. He said the chapel building is not meant for mourning as it used to be, but for happy occasions such as weddings. A bridge will be built over 26th Street to connect the school, museum and theater to Cunningham Park, he said.
It is appropriate, he said, “that a place so known for healing will become a place where dreams are realized.”
A plaque was unveiled in the park listing the names of the 161 who died as a result of the storm.
Under the plaque, six time capsules were placed containing items representing the various sectors of the community: youths, seniors, families of storm victims, the community as a whole, city workers and the news media. Rohr said the time capsules are meant to be opened for the 50th anniversary of the tornado in 2061.
The last of 161 trees planted at the park in memory of the victims was put in place, and members of the audience were invited to help plant it.
As a moment of silence was observed at 5:41 p.m. — the time the first report came in to emergency dispatchers that a tornado had hit — sobs could be heard through the crowd.
Lashawnda Cavener, of Joplin, was one of those sobbing. She lost her mother, Melisa Johnson, 49, and her brother, Charles Gaudsmith, 21, in the storm. She said they were in Wal-Mart at 15th Street and Range Line Road when the tornado hit, destroying the store and killing a number of customers.Debby Woodin 5/22/12 all names correct
Her brother died a hero, she said, lying on top of her mother and several other customers trying to protect them.
“I think it was awesome,” she said of Tuesday’s observance and tribute. “It makes me proud to be a part of Joplin.”
THE THEME OF TUESDAY’S OBSERVANCE was “1. One Year. One Community. One Direction.” T-shirts printed with that message are being sold on rebuildjoplin.org, with the proceeds to be used to fund a sculpture as a tribute to volunteers.