JOPLIN, Mo. —
Joplin has a story to tell.
And more than a year after a tornado ripped through the city’s center, killing 161 people and destroying thousands of structures, people are still listening to that story.
It’s what brought Chelsea Clinton, a correspondent for NBC News, to Joplin recently for the second time in two months.
“Understanding how and why Joplin has been able to rebuild ... is something I think we can really learn lessons from,” she said Thursday after wrapping up an interview in the Commerce Bank building in downtown Joplin.
Clinton, the daughter of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, follows scores of reporters from around the country who have revisited Joplin over the past few weeks to highlight the recovery and rebuilding efforts of the city.
Many returned in May for the city’s memorial ceremonies on the anniversary of the deadly tornado as well as for Joplin High School’s graduation the night before, which had hosted President Barack Obama and Gov. Jay Nixon.
Clinton’s piece will focus on a more unassuming — but just as inspiring — story: The June 1 reopening of Liz Easton’s bakery, Cupcakes by Liz.
Clinton first visited Joplin on assignment with NBC in April, talking to the students, staff and vendors who were preparing for the high school’s prom. It was there that she met Easton, who had donated 1,500 cupcakes for the event.
“So many people told us: ‘Liz rebuilding really tells us we can rebuild, too,’” Clinton said. “We knew we wanted to be here (for the bakery’s reopening).”
Clinton spent two days in Joplin late last week talking to Easton and the architect, contractor and materials supplier who helped her rebuild her bakery on Main Street. But she hopes her piece for NBC will share with viewers across the country a deeper story about the city’s ability to rebuild.
“It does take a village,” she said. “I believe that, and I believe the experience here in Joplin, holistically and symbolically with Cupcakes by Liz, embodies that.”
Charles Davis, an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, said he thinks the magnitude of the tornado is one reason why journalists keep returning to Joplin. The “shockingly fast” way the storm developed, as opposed to an event that unfolds over several weeks, might also have resonated with people across the country, he said.
“One of the things that drives coverage of Joplin is its singular tragedy,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. “It was a horrific natural disaster on a scale that has seldom been seen in the United States, frankly.”
Davis also said he thinks national journalists are drawn to Midwestern stereotypes of small-town values, fields of grain and American flags waving in the wind, which can make for compelling stories.
“Joplin is full of that emblematic imagery,” he said.
Clinton said the country remains interested in Joplin’s story, in part, because it’s inspiring. After an interview earlier on Thursday with City Manager Mark Rohr, she cited statistics provided by the city of Joplin that indicate a majority of businesses that were affected by the tornado are open or opening soon. About two-thirds of residential structures that were damaged are under permit for repair or reconstruction, according to the city.
“Those are just remarkable statistics a little more than a year after” the tornado, she said.
Clinton also said national interest remains high because of the tens of thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in donations that flooded into the community after the tornado.
“Because so many people have invested their time and energy in helping Joplin rebuild, so many people want to see Joplin succeed,” she said.
When asked whether readers and viewers nationwide are still interested in Joplin’s story, as news outlets seem to be, Davis echoed a similar opinion.
“I get the feeling that readers are still very interested in knowing particularly that Joplin is cleaning itself off and moving itself forward,” he said. “There’s a certain karmic release in knowing that the rebuilding is under way. Those stories are edifying, and I think people really enjoy them.”
Barring breaking news, NBC correspondent Chelsea Clinton’s piece on the reopening of Joplin business Cupcakes by Liz is tentatively slated to air on Monday, June 11.