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

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 22, 2024 3:00 am

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

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 22, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, on March 22, 2011 Joplin, Missouri, took a direct hit from the costliest tornado in American history. Though the scar remains, Joplin has recovered in truly amazing ways. Former KSNF Channel 16 Weatherman Jerimiah Cook and reporter Gretchen Bolander tell the story of love, and loss, in Joplin.

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They're some of our favorites. On May 22nd, 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 it's 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. 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 gonna 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 set 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 something you know 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 going to get going it's going to 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 seventeen dollars and seventy six cents is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming. That's From BBC Radio 4 Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment oh my god we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA. He says somebody's in the house and I screamed.

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That's slash OAS. Better help H-E-L-P dot com slash O-A-S. 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 2 uncovered. National Weather Service just said there was some small rotation on the west side of Joplin, Blackhat and 20th Street area. We had a phone call. 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 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 dad always said do 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 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 one source that we had heard which was a very unpopulated area so again I 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 a 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 3 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 3 quarter of a mile wide area but at that moment nobody knew it was an f5 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 33 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 and it's funny ten years later I can still see st. John's Hospital I mean the tornado hit it it hit it 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 that seeing the building in the shape it was in that was that was tough because it was it was such an iconic fixture of the community I mean there was there was nothing that looked like st. 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 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 the 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 gonna find out what happened to Joplin when the tornado passed here on our American story from BBC Radio 4 Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip I thought in that moment oh my god we've summoned something from this board this is Uncanny USA he says somebody's in the house and I screamed listen to Uncanny USA wherever you get your BBC podcasts if you dare zoom I'll play is your destination for endless entertainment with a diverse lineup of 350 plus live channels movies and full TV series you'll easily find something to watch right away and the best part it's all free love music get lost in the 90s with I heart 90s dance away with hip-hop beats and more on the I heart radio music channels no logins no signups no accounts no hassle so what are you waiting for start streaming at play.xu or download from the app and Google Play stores today all you can stream with Zumo play hey I'm here to tell you about up faith and family the leading streaming service for uplifting entertainment it's the only place to stream all seasons of the award-winning series heartland with exclusive content you won't see anywhere else binge all of the past seasons and don't miss the season 17 of heartland and stream a new episode weekly dive into the warmth of heartland and let up faith and family be your go-to service for all things uplifting start your free trial today go to up faith and for your free trial up faith and 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 gonna 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 three days and that was that was something else one of the things we would hear later from FEMA was that the clearing of roads and 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 had 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 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 and 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 Wollstone who was mayor of Joplin at the time he was out picking up debris in the city 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 a 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 I'm gonna 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 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're not we're not gonna tolerate this we are gonna 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 say I oftentimes 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 no different than any other town we have our problems but you know for one 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 wanted to have anybody else at my back when disaster does happen when these moments do strike it's the person on your left and the person on your right that's who you're gonna 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 I'm Katja Adler host of the global story over the last 25 years I've covered conflicts in the Middle East political and economic crises in Europe drug cartels in Mexico now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening why and what it all means follow the global story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts zoom and play is your destination for endless entertainment with a diverse lineup of 350 plus live channels movies and full TV series you'll easily find something to watch right away and the best part it's all free love music get lost in the 90s with I heart 90s dance away with hip-hop beats and more on the I heart radio music channels no logins no signups no accounts no hassle so what are you waiting for start streaming at play dot 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