In title: The May 2011 tornado displaced 9,000 Joplin residents and destroyed or damaged 7,500 homes. AAA photo
Above: Joplin’s downtown businesses, which were not greatly affected by the tornado, are ready for summer travelers.
Below: Sandstone Gardens located off Interstate 44 just west of Joplin is a popular shopping stop. There’s also a bistro that serves Wednesday–Sunday.
• 161 lives lost from the tornado or storm-related injuries
• 7,500 homes damaged or destroyed
• 9,000 people displaced
• $2.2 billion in insurance claims paid out, the highest in Missouri’s history
• 3 million cubic yards of debris hauled away, twice the amount left by the World Trade Center collapse of 9/11
The tornado touched down at the western edge of Joplin and tracked eastward into rural Newton and Lawrence counties, but missed the city’s downtown area where much of the tourism-related businesses are located. Joplin residents not directly affected by the tornado know folks who experienced loss.
In the Joplin Convention and Visitor Bureau (CVB) office that’s located downtown, a four-person staff works to draw meetings and visitors to their city that borders Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Patrick Tuttle, acting CVB director, said all staff members were affected, particularly a woman who lost her home and another who lost an elderly family member.
“It touched our office directly as far as impact goes,” Tuttle said. “The night of the storm, we worked at the trauma center and helped find dry clothes for people.”
For the week following the tornado, the staff and its marketing partners documented the destruction with video and still photography. In preparation for an event a year after the tornado, Tuttle’s had to examine those images again.
“Going through all of that, it’s amazing. The amount of debris was just phenomenal,” he said.
The Rebuilding Process
Other statistics point to the outpouring of support to aid in Joplin’s recovery: 124,443 registered volunteers have donated 760,200 hours from May 2011 through March 2012. Churches, schools, and community groups from all over the country have consistently supported the clean-up and rebuilding efforts. Tuttle said four universities were in town over a recent spring break to work. And a busload of workers, associated with the Lions Club in Lancaster, Pa., is coming in June; each week, a new busload of volunteers.
Voluntourism, a practice that’s gained popularity since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is alive and well in Joplin.
“It warms the heart,” Tuttle said. “Voluntourism is an active part of our American fabric now. It is really taken hold here.”
Regional Habitat for Humanity efforts have successfully built homes for displaced residents, too. This summer, the office of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity, and professional sport teams in Missouri and Kansas will work to build 35 homes in Joplin.
Ten months after the storm, the city is planning an event, “A Day of Unity,” to commemorate the anniversary of the tornado. One of the highlights is “A Walk of Unity,” which will travel through the areas affected by the twister, beginning on the eastern side of town near 17th and Range Line and moving through neighborhoods–walking against the wind–to Cunningham Park. The walk begins at 2:30 p.m. on May 22 and concludes around 5 p.m. in time for a moment of silence at 5:41 p.m. A bronze plaque with the names of those who died as a result of the tornado will be dedicated.
“As we remember the many trials and sadness we’ve experienced, we also acknowledge the courage it takes to move forward in the recovery process,” said City Manager Mark Rohr.
“People are invited to reconnect with neighbors, family, and friends,” Tuttle said. “It’s more about moving forward and what we’ve done as a whole.”
The 2012 graduating class of Joplin High School will have commencement May 21 at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, where President Barack Obama and Nixon are expected to speak. The high school and nine other buildings–half the school district–were destroyed in the tornado.
Plans for Tourism
In January, Tuttle and his staff embarked on a “Revisit Joplin” campaign aimed at meeting planners, letting the decision makers and travel/tourism types know the town is open for business. He said four new conventions and meetings were booked as a result, including one that’s insisting on using Joplin businesses for the event and its planning.
Tuttle visited with bus tour operators that usually stopped en route to or from Branson and St. Louis to remind them that Joplin never closed for business. The shops and restaurants are open to welcome visitors.
Last summer, many hotel rooms were occupied with visiting volunteers and displaced families. This year, the summer travel season may be a better indicator of what’s ahead for Joplin, Tuttle said.
Attractions, restaurants, shops, and hotels are ready for summer. Joplin has 2,076 hotel rooms, Tuttle said. And as gas prices inch toward $4 a gallon at press time, he hopes families will rethink the long road trip this year and stay close to home. Joplin is less than 300 miles southwest of St. Louis.
While visitors will not see the annual Boomtown Days Festival in June–the event will be back next year–a new event, Restore Fest, will return over Memorial Day weekend, May 26 and 27. This two-day Christian music festival is held at Landreth Park in Joplin. It was created last year after a Joplin resident coordinated a concert for the community. In just 45 days, the initial event hosted more than 10,000 people, overcoming weather and other challenges. For details and tickets, visit www.restorefest.org.
“We’re not promoting the fact that people can come to see what an EF-5 tornado has done to our community; that’s sort of a reality,” Tuttle said. “But they can see our history, thriving businesses, Route 66 culture, and much more. And if they want to pay it forward by volunteering, we welcome that, too.”
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler.