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The Town of Joplin was Destroyed by an EF-5 Tornado in 2011: This is Joplin's Story—a Story of Loss, Love, and Hope

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 23, 2023 3:00 am

The Town of Joplin was Destroyed by an EF-5 Tornado in 2011: This is Joplin's Story—a Story of Loss, Love, and Hope

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 23, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the media came and left with the wind after Joplin was struck by an EF-5 tornado. Our American Stories came back 10 years later to tell their story of recovery with people who were there on the ground the whole time.

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Visit AT&T.com for details. in 2011, the city of Joplin, Missouri was decimated by the costliest tornado in American history. It took 162 lives and injured thousands. The tornado left a permanent scar on the Joplin community. Joplin has now since rebuilt in a magnificent way, but the scar, well, it remains. Here to tell the story of loss and love in Joplin is meteorologist Jeremiah Cook and Gretchen Bolander. And we're telling this story because on this day in history in 2011, the city of Joplin, Missouri was struck.

Here's Jeremiah. As far as who I am, I'm a Southwest Missouri farm boy. I love Southwest Missouri.

I am convinced that when the work of saving humanity is done and God retires, he is going to retire in Southwest Missouri. There's just no place like it on Earth. I think that's part of what made it so much fun to be a journalist and a weather anchor here was I was getting a chance to tell the stories and predict the weather for my family, for the people I grew up with. This was not just another place to work. This was my home. My wife used to joke that I was married to her, but the weather was my mistress.

And honestly, I guess that kind of was true. I loved the problem of trying to figure out what the weather was going to do. You know, when you look at the news desk, there's four people on the news desk. Three of them are telling you what has already happened, and one of them is trying to figure out what's going to happen.

I wanted to be that guy that was trying to outsmart Mother Nature, if you will. The day of the Joplin tornado, on one hand, it was the best day. I mean, and it's weird because sitting here thinking about it, on one hand, the number of people that I've heard say that, you know, we were able to save their lives. They took our warning seriously that their kids are here today because of what we did. Their grandkids are here today.

They're here today. And my wife was pregnant with our child at the time. Two weeks to the day later, she gave birth to our first child. She was at home in the path of the tornado, and she was watching, and she's here today because she took what I was saying on TV seriously.

And so is my daughter and now my son. But at the same time, it was also kind of the worst day. That's, it is the kind of hellscape I hope I never have to walk through again. So it was a Sunday, and Sunday is a day off for me. I did not see anything in the hours leading up to it that made me feel like I needed to come into the station. You have to understand that a lot of times we have a tornado touchdown in the area, and there's so much rural area around here that, you know, unfortunately, it may be a farmer is affected.

You know, a barn could be lost or some cattle, but the vast majority of touchdowns in our area don't affect the population center, which, of course, is going to be the highest priority. So I don't remember anything of the nature. I remember being outside probably within half an hour of the touchdown, and the sky was blue with a few clouds. It was a beautiful day. I was outside and having conversation and just enjoying the day. Honestly, there's not a lot that happens on Sundays in this area. At the time, I was the weekend weather anchor, so obviously I would do the the weather for the 10 o'clock newscast. I also worked as a reporter on the weekends, but I had pre-shot and pre-edited all my stuff, and I had some overtime, so the news director was going to let me take the afternoon off and come in that evening.

But with severe weather, I mean, that trumps everything. When they issued the first warning, I was actually over at a friend's house. We had just sat down. I think we were playing John Madden football and in fact, I think I was winning, but anyway, I got the phone call that they had issued that warning. As I recall, I want to say that we thought the threat was more central Arkansas.

So I left. I came to the station and to be honest with you for the first couple hours, it was just a run of the mill event. It was nothing we hadn't done 10,000 times before other than the storm moved really really slowly. There were times the National Weather Service would put out updates and it was moving. You know one mile per hour outside of that it was it was nothing that I hadn't done.

Dozens, if not hundreds of times in the the 12 years of my career leading up to that. Nature had other plans. And we have this one this one pesky cell that fires up in Lavette County about 60 miles due west of Joplin or so and I'll tell you it got a little frustrating because it just did not move. It was kind of meandering around Parsons and they finally put out a tornado warning on it and from the radar returns, it looked like it was just raining like you wouldn't believe and then when it finally started to move, we all thought okay finally this is this is gonna get going. It's gonna get out of the area and we can get back to business as usual, but it kept moving and it picked up speed and it made a beeline for Joplin.

And you've been listening to Jeremiah Cook and Gretchen Bolander, both of whom are on duty at KSNF Channel 16 in Joplin, Missouri, and you're hearing the story of the Joplin tornado and my goodness as Jeremiah said one pesky storm cell fired up 60 miles out of Joplin and started heading right our way. When we come back more of the story of Joplin and the tornado that changed everything here on our American story. Folks, if you love the great American stories, we tell and love America like we do. We're asking you to become a part of the our American stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to our American stories.com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we return to our American stories and the story of the Joplin tornado. Here again is Jeremiah Cook, the weatherman on duty at the time of the storm and current KSNF reporter Gretchen Bolander.

Let's continue with the story. Station 21 copies. National Weather Service just said there was some small rotation on the west side of Joplin, Black Cat and 20th Street area. We had an anonymous phone call of two final clouds in the Loma Linda area and then they hung out. I remember when the warnings came down, I was sitting there in the studio. We were live on air and I was talking about what we were seeing on the Doppler radar and then one of the camera operators in the studio started snapping their fingers and waving their hands and they pointed over at one of the monitors. It was our tower camera and I looked at it and I thought, man, I know what that is.

I should know what that is, but you know sometimes when you see something and you know what it is, but you see it out of context and it's like your mind refuses to recognize what it is. That was that moment I had seen tornadoes dozens of times in person and gosh, I hate to even think about the number of hours of video I've seen with tornadoes in them, but for some reason, it's like my mind was refusing to acknowledge that was a tornado. And there was about a second and a half of oh my God, what do I do now? And I remembered some advice my dad had given me. Dad always said something just do something and you'll figure out how to make it the right thing and I just started talking what we were seeing where it was headed what we could tell from it.

I remember seeing these flashes at the bottom of it and I thought at first those are lightning strikes, but it quickly became apparent that it was the tornado hitting power lines and hitting transformers and hitting houses and that was like the moment when reality came crashing down like that was the nightmare moment. You spend all this time preparing yourself. You spend all this time studying. You spend all this time trying to figure out how do you stop this from happening? It's like being in a horror movie and realizing you're powerless to stop the monster.

It's coming. It's coming for the people you love and there is nothing you can do about it. There was a point that day where I didn't know if my wife was still here. My mom and dad, my sister's husband, a police officer with Joplin Police Department.

I've got friends all over town. All these people are are in the path of it and when I started talking again, I was just praying that I was talking to them that I was telling them that this is happening. Get out of the way find shelter do something. I was just hoping to God that they were watching that they were seeing what I was seeing and that we were going to get the message through to them. You know it's a heck of a thing trying to trying to hold it together emotionally in a moment like that, but you just do it.

You just you act and you move. You know we we got in the crawl space so we're pretty insulated from hearing and certainly seeing anything and the reports that we continued to get at that point said that there may have been a touchdown on the northern outskirts of town from one source that we had heard, which was a very unpopulated area. So again, I started to think well, maybe something's happened and then on my particular block, there was no impact other than the weather had started to started to get cooler.

It took a few minutes before I started to hear from anybody who was concerned that Joplin was in bad shape. You could have filled the library full of books with what we didn't know in that moment and I doubt you could have filled a notepad with what we did know. Even I would find out later even city leaders didn't know how bad it was at that point because it was getting dark. It was hard to get around.

It was hard to kind of get your arms around it. So I had actually seen bad damage, but it didn't look like EF-5 damage. It was an EF-5. That's the top end.

Those are those are the bad boys. I want to say that the path of destruction was around 15, 15 and a half miles in length and three quarters of a mile wide. The wind speeds were around 260 miles an hour. You don't think about 260 mile an hour winds. That's that's 260 mile an hour winds. That's like saying a trillion dollars. I think it's a number that's hard for somebody to fathom.

You know if you've ever been in a car driving down the road at 50 miles per hour and you put your hand outside the window and feel how hard it is to keep your hand in one spot. I mean take that and multiply it by five and that's what was happening and not just in one little bitty spot but but in a three quarter of a mile wide area. But at that moment, nobody knew it was an EF-5. Nobody knew how wide it was. Nobody knew how bad the damage was.

So they put me in a news car and they said go out. I think I finally got sent home from work around 2 thirty three o'clock Sunday morning and by that time I had seen large portions of the town. Folks were worried that two or three thousand people might be dead. You have a large section where it almost looked like the storm had taken a scythe.

I have a very good friend who's home. The largest highest part of a wall was about four feet. I'm still shocked that he actually survived. Everything was gone. You know roads had power lines and poles and trees. There was just debris everywhere. I know a lot of folks would later talk about this this tornado schmutz that was all over everything and it was kind of insulation and little pieces of wood and it's just it's hard to describe what that was like if you haven't seen it but it was almost a coating of almost everything. You know, it's it's funny.

10 years later, I can still see Saint John's Hospital. I mean the tornado hit it. It hit it. It it's it's like it specifically targeted the building.

That was the feeling I always had. I mean it it broken windows and cars flipped over the med flight helicopter looked like it had been used as a child's toy and seeing the seeing the building in the shape it was in that was that was tough because it it was it was such an iconic fixture of the community. I mean there was there was nothing that looked like Saint John's and that was the first oh dear sweet god no moment.

This went from being a storm to being one of those epoch moments in life where everything changes. You know, I remember hearing stories afterwards. I I had a couple of friends that were nurses there and you know, you talk about heroes.

Those guys were they were cut up. They were bloodied and their first thought was get flashlights and find patients. Find people who need help and you know, that's that's I know I've talked about the destruction here, but if you'll humor me for a moment, I said earlier, I can't imagine living anywhere else. As we were driving across Joplin, the tornado wasn't even off the ground. You could look to the east and see the tornado and men and women were out there helping their neighbors. They dug themselves out and then they went and they found someone else to help. That's what it means to be from Southwest Missouri. I mean they they took one look at this situation and they said no sir not in our backyard.

And what a thing to say about your community that tornado wasn't even off the ground and there they were neighbors digging themselves out and then helping fellow neighbors and when we come back, we're going to find out what happened to Joplin when the tornado passed here on our American story. What's that we hear? Oh, just the sound of a Vizio V series sound bar for less than $200.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we return to our American stories and the final portion of the story of the May 22nd 2011 Joplin tornado and the recovery that happened afterwards. When we last left off, Joplin had been devastated by an EF-5 tornado. Here again is Jeremiah Cook and current KSNF reporter Gretchen Bolander with the astonishing story of the recovery of Joplin. Over the next couple of weeks, there were some long hard days in there not just dealing with the news, but my house was damaged and my wife and I were temporarily living with my mom and dad and she was extremely pregnant.

Her place of employment had been blown off the map, so we don't know if she's got a job anymore. We haven't had anybody out to see how badly damaged our house was and whether or not it was even going to be salvageable. There were just so many unknowns, but the thing that kept me going every day was going out there and you would see people that had lost everything and they weren't worried about themselves. They were worried about the next person over. If I remember correctly, we had the roads cleared in 3 days and that was that was something else. One of the things we would hear later from FEMA was that the clearing of roads in the Joplin destruction zone was one of the fastest operations they had seen because folks just came folks came with their heavy equipment and started moving things. They jumped in. They didn't wait for someone to say yes, go to this area and do this.

They just started helping. We have people who drove their tractors over to move stuff to be of use. They'd show up with their pickup trucks and their shovels. They would show up with food. They would show up with water. They would show up with anything you needed even if that was just a shoulder to cry on for a minute.

They were there. I mean, I'll tell you I feel like it's a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. I do think it definitely speaks to Joplin that people want to help each other. You know, not everybody's perfect, but when there is a need, people will pitch in and I have to say for myself, you know, as a reporter, sometimes it's hard not to become cynical because you do see a lot of bad things that happen to people that other people do to each other and this is one of those cases that really kind of helps restore your faith in humanity that people want good things to happen for other people and they don't want them to feel alone when they might be at their darkest hour. My personal heroes, Mike Wollston, who was mayor of Joplin at the time. He was out picking up debris in the city and and I think one of my favorite moments with Mike. He was on TV with Anderson Cooper and Anderson Cooper. You know he's trying to interview the mayor of the town that just got blasted and Mike is standing there with work gloves picking debris up off the ground and as soon as Anderson says, you know, thank you, Mr. Mayor, he says no problem and he turns around.

He puts his work gloves back on and on national TV starts picking debris up and throwing it in the back of a wagon to be hauled off. It was like getting your batteries recharged when you were around him and you just saw the professionalism. I think I'm a better father.

I'm a better person. I'm a better husband because I was around guys like Mike at the time that the storm hit and I got to see how a first class professional handles themselves. You know, I remember it was a few weeks after the tornado, which is funny because the day of the tornado. I mean, I mean I can remember that stuff just man. It's like it's like it's in 4k clarity in my mind the sights the smells the sounds the actual tactile sensations of the day, but those first few weeks afterwards are kind of a blur, but I remember at one point I was standing there with Mike and I said, where do we go from here and he said don't look at this for what it is right now. We can't change that look at it for what it can be look at it for where we can go.

And I think on one hand, that's that's how you get through it. We had a lot of people in Joplin who decided that this storm was not going to be what defined us. It was going to be what happened next. You know there are some amazing things that have happened since then, you know parts of Joplin look completely different today. These are things that would not have happened, you know without the being forced to replace, but they tore down the old hospital and built a brand new one to have a brand new hospital built.

You know just a few years ago. That's not something every community can say we have you know the housing you know we had a large amount of housing that was lost all of that is brand new. Not not every single lot's been built on, but a lot of lots are replaced.

I would have to guess at least three out of four probably have been replaced with the newer better housing. We would get new reporters that would come to town and of course the first thing you're going to ask about is the tornado and the recovery and I remember there was one young lady who I promised her that I would take her on a tour. So we're driving around town and she said, well, this is nice and all but where was the tornado? I said you you're you are literally sitting at a stop sign in the middle of where the tornado was and she said. No way and this is just a few years later and there are houses and the lots are cleaned up and there are kids playing in the yards and businesses are rebuilt and things are reopened and the high school is back up and running and churches have rebuilt and the areas where maybe the recovery hasn't happened yet stand out more than the areas that have been. You know again that the the city just decided it's I don't know that it was any one person who consciously did it, but it at some point along the way we as a community like collectively decided.

Nope. We we're not we're not going to tolerate this. We are going to come back bigger better and stronger than ever and in a lot of ways that's happened. But you know for me. I'm sorry. This is hard to talk about for me.

The thing that doesn't go away is. The 162 we weren't able. We weren't able to save. I often times wonder what could I have done differently. You know my mind wanders back to that because every Christmas every birthday every 4th of July, there's 162 families that they don't have that and I guess in a way I blame myself a little bit for that. That maybe I should have done something different.

I don't know what that would have been, but part of me feels like I should still try. We feel like we owe it to those people that that aren't here now to live the best lives possible to make Joplin the best community possible to make Southwest Missouri and and the four states as a whole the best it can possibly be because we owe it to those folks. I am so proud of this community and how we've recovered and you know we're we're no different than any other town. We have our problems, but you know for 1 moment.

Everything that was right and perfect about humanity existed here in Joplin. I guess that's the big takeaway is. When push came to shove. Now I wouldn't have wanted to have anybody else at my back when disaster does happen when when these moments do strike. It's the person on your left and the person on your right.

That's who you're going to have to depend on. You know that's what it was. That's what it was in that moment. It was love everybody set aside their differences and. They came together. And great job as always to Monty on the piece and a special thanks to Jeremiah Cook and Gretchen Bolander. The story of the 2011 Joplin tornado and Joplin's recovery here on our American stories.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-23 04:14:48 / 2023-05-23 04:27:26 / 13

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