We interview Joplin’s top city officials in Cunningham Park, and it is impossible not to be aware of the imagery: the ruins of St John’s hospital in the distance, and all around us, memorials and artwork commissioned and completed within a year. It’s a dual testament to how much work has been done here, and how much is left to go.
All of these men are experienced civil servants. So how did they use that experience to deal with an EF-5 tornado? “I don’t know that there’s a how-to list to deal with something like we dealt with,” says Mark Rohr, Joplin’s city manager. He and Mitch Randles, Joplin’s fire chief, met at 5:50pm on May 22, 2011, roughly 16 minutes after the tornado touched down. They met by a Mexican restaurant, and the first thing they saw was a minivan occupied by two corpses. That gruesome scene set the tone of the devastation to come.
Then-mayor Mike Woolston knew what his role was at the time: step back, let his team of experts take over, and become a voice of advocacy of the city, a role which the other officials said he performed exceedingly well. Lane Roberts, the city police chief, says that thanks to drills related to severe weather in tornado-prone Southwest Missori, the city’s immediate response came from both the gut and the head. “I think early on in the emergency response phase we fell into roles, partly via instinct and intuition, and partly via intensive training we had done for this before, and that set us up for success.”
Mark says the artwork in Cunningham Park, partly dedicated to “The Miracle of the Human Spirit,” stems from the deep gratitude Joplin feels to its own community, to state and federal agencies, and to the 125,000 registered volunteers who have helped Joplin rebuild.