Like it did in the aftermath of a powerful tornado 10 years ago, Joplin walked, ran and brought hundreds to the city to help remember those lost and celebrate the city’s comeback.
After walking in Cunningham Park through the banners bearing the names of those who died as a result of tornado injuries, sprinting through the tornado zone in the rainy morning Joplin Memorial Run, the community and its many friends gathered at the park for a ceremony marking memories and accomplishments.
“We join today in somber remembrance of our loss and take inspiration from the spirit that led the remarkable recovery in Joplin,” said former Gov. Jay Nixon, keynote speaker Saturday at the observance of the tornado anniversary.
“A town on the edge of wind-swept plains expects and gets rough weather from time to time, but the death and destruction brought down on this community 10 years ago was in a different order of magnitude,” said Nixon, who was governor at the time the tornado nearly leveled a third of the city.
There were 14,000 people left homeless and 161 lives lost in the wake of the storm that day.
“We will never forget the wreckage we witnessed,” Nixon said. “The sorrow runs deep in our bones and in our soul.”
Nixon told a crowd estimated at 2,000 that the Bible says that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance brings character and character creates hope. “Joplin’s story is a testament to this truth because in its darkest hour, a light shined through,” as first responders arrived quickly.
That light was assistance brought to bear from all fronts: state and federal governments; first responders including police, fire, and ambulance crews from miles away; the National Guard; and nonprofits such as the Salvation Army, Convoy of Hope and other relief organizations.
“Dump trucks and ’dozers rumbled and roared from dawn until midnight that long, hot summer,” Nixon said. “Volunteers followed in their wake with chain saws and shovels, buckets and wheelbarrows. Sometimes the only tools they had were their bare hands. Brick by brick and board by board they cleared the path to recovery.”
Temporary schools were built with former Superintendent C.J. Huff’s decision to start the new school year on time that year. Nixon said a temporary high school was built in a vacant storefront at Northpark Mall in 55 days.
Citing the first class of graduates of the Kansas City University Medicine and Biosciences College of Osteopathic Medicine, a new KCU dental school, multiple new schools and an Early Childhood Center, a new Joplin Public Library, an Advanced Training and Technical Center, along with hundreds of new houses, the former governor said he go on and on enumerating the achievements brought about in a decade.
“Joplin is better and stronger today than it was before the tornado struck,” he said. “When you look at what this community has accomplished over the last 10 years, it is nothing short of miraculous.”
“What enduring lessons,” he asked, “does Joplin offer us all in this moment when our nation is in the midst of unprecedented suffering from the pandemic, political divisions and personal mistrust? The first of those value-laden lessons can be seen in the people of Joplin, loyalty to home and community,” when disasters in other communities have sent residents of them moving to new locations.
Nixon repeated a description he had previously used to describe Joplin residents.
“We are here this evening because the people of Joplin are the toughest people on God’s green earth,” he said.
Before the program, children used their creative side to make and color butterflies that were used to decorate trees and the stage for the program.
“These trees and the beautiful butterflies represent our continued growth and strength as the resilient community we are,” said Mayor Ryan Stanley in opening the ceremony.
Stanley introduced Nixon by saying he was a strong leader who pulled in the state and federal resources needed to jump-start Joplin’s path back from destruction while being compassionate enough to comfort those hurting.
Nixon called the effort by all departments of the state to respond “government with a heart. Government that worked the way it is supposed to.”
U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, talked about his remembrances of the tornado and said that he told the U.S. president at the time, Barack Obama, to “remember Joplin.” Long and Nixon walked with Obama through the debris-laden streets in a visit a week after the storm hit.
“Today, as a community, we are not remembered for the tornado, but rather how we responded on a multitude of levels,” Stanley said. “Joplin is now known as the model of unity, resilience and recovery.”
Councilman and former Mayor Gary Shaw thanked those in the audience, which included returning FEMA workers and AmeriCorps volunteers, for their assistance.
Shaw credited Mike Woolston, who was mayor at the time of the tornado; Mark Rohr, who was city manager; Mitch Randles, who was fire chief; and Lane Roberts, who was police chief, and those who worked with them. He said they became superheroes in jump-starting Joplin’s course after the deadly storm.