Two incredibly destructive and deadly tornadoes touched down in Joplin during the early 1970s.
Both occurred during the month of May and were separated by just a little over two years of time.
Near supper time on May 5, 1971, a paralyzing tornado hit Joplin, leaving one person dead while injuring at least 60 other people. The storm took the life of Rick Johnson, a 23-year-old Missouri Southern State College student.
The tornado first touched down just west of Maiden Lane. The Joplin Globe reported that the tornado “uprooted trees, smashed houses and cars, damaged numerous business buildings, mainly in the area from 12th Street and Wall Avenue.” The sheer velocity of the storm caused two large trailer trucks to be overturned on the Campbell 66 Express lot at 12th Street and Grand Avenue.
The twister dismantled nearly all signs along Main Street from Eighth to 15th streets. Most of the store windows along the route were blown out. The tornado stayed on the south side of Seventh Street as it moved eastward from Main, with a major thrust lashing into the Eastmoreland Plaza Shopping Center, where the Foodtown Super Market was heavily damaged. The Sears store and the other businesses along the plaza’s strip received damages too.
Moving on both sides of Seventh Street from the plaza, the tornado ripped apart buildings and houses, knocked down signs, trees and electric wires, and overturned several cars.
The indiscriminate storm caused damage to 1,500 to 1,600 insured private buildings, homes and businesses. In a matter of days, over 200 claims adjusters were on-site.
The front and rear portions of the R & S Chevrolet building in the 1600 block of East Seventh Street were broken apart by the twister. The front of the May’s City building, the Elms Center — where Katz Drug and the Bowlarama were located — all received direct hits. The strong twister also collapsed the rear portion of the Missouri Highway Department building at Fourth Street and Range Line.
Joplin City Mayor Larry Hickey estimated the damages at $20 million. Missouri Gov. Warren E. Hearnes declared the city of Joplin a disaster area.
Two years later
Just two years and six days after the 1971 tornado that was still fresh in everyone’s memory, another devastating tornadic storm struck. The cruel side of nature lashed back again on the morning of May 11, 1973.
This destructive tornado collided with the region shortly before 7 a.m. Winds reached speeds between 70 and 100 mph, took three lives and injured some 100 area citizens.
Killed during the storm were 19-year-old Pamela Long and 64-year-old William Carl Graves. The Joplin Globe reported: “Graves died of an apparent heart attack suffered shortly after the storm caused extensive damage in the mobile park where he resided. Both Graves and Long were residents of the West Side Trailer Court located on West 7th Street, approximately three miles west of Joplin.” Eleven of the 23 mobile homes in the park were destroyed.
Thirty-eight-year-old Eva Mae Sinko was pronounced dead on arrival at St. John’s Medical Center after being injured at the Miller Manufacturing Co., where she was employed.
In addition to the employee’s death, the company’s clothing factory at 27th Street and Davis Boulevard received substantial damage.
Hardest hit in the Four-State region was the city of Joplin. As many as 100 homes sustained damage from the high winds and downed trees. The storm displaced 60 families in the city.
Many of Joplin’s businesses received storm damages. Northpark Mall, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the Consumer’s and Wal-Mart shopping centers, Fleming IGA Warehouse, Cummin’s Diesel, Ozark Bible College’s chapel and Parkwood High School’s Russ Kaminsky Gymnasium all had extensive damage.
Thousands of trees were uprooted and broken. Schifferdecker Golf Course lost over 60 trees and Twin Hills Golf and Country Club lost over 75. Some roads were temporarily closed. Local television stations were knocked out of service and 2,700 telephones stopped working.
A command center for the American Red Cross was set up at Memorial High School for the feeding, clothing and housing of people displaced by the storm. Division representative M.H. Fredrickson arrived from Springfield to set up disaster operations. Red Cross units from Springfield, Kansas City, Coffeyville, Muskogee and Tulsa were dispatched to Joplin to assist in the disaster relief.
By Monday, May 15, Missouri Gov. Christopher (Kit) Bond had declared Newton and Jasper counties as disaster areas. Joplin City Manager Robert Metzinger estimated damages at $12.8 million.
Separated by a little more than two years, the storms created two different types of tornadoes.
The 1971 tornado was one that ran in a fairly narrow width, packing a wallop in a swath that devastated a 37-block area. This type of tornado has winds up to 300 mph at its center, but just 600 yards away there was little or no damage.
The 1973 tornado caused extensive destruction in all sections of the city, rather than along any general path. Allen Pearson, director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, described the phenomenon as an intense low-pressure center with strong winds running miles wide, which contained small tornadoes.
Regardless of the type, both tornadoes in the 1970s left a permanent mark on Joplin and its residents.