By Amanda Bicknell, External Affairs, Region VII
On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado barreled through Jasper and Newton counties in southwest Missouri for 13 miles on the ground, grinding rural areas and impacting the cities of Joplin and Duquesne. The losses were staggering: 161 deceased; more than 1,300 injured; 7,500 damaged homes, of which more than 4,000 were destroyed. More than 530 businesses and 28 churches were damaged or destroyed. Schools, public and private, were flattened. Insurance losses were just shy of $2 billion. Despite the devastation, Joplin and Duquesne residents immediately dug their heels in, vowed to rebuild.
One year later, on May 22, 2012, thousands of community members, volunteers, disaster-relief workers, friends and well-wishers came together in “A Day of Unity.” The day’s celebrations and commemorations included a four-mile walk along much of the tornado’s path; groundbreaking ceremonies for new schools and businesses; a steeple-raising for a damaged church; kids’ games; a city-led ceremony that included a moment of silence for those who were lost; and the placement of tornado-commemorative time capsules.
At one point during the four-mile walk Regional Administrator Beth Freeman, Region VII, stood with hundreds of others on the grounds of where the old Joplin High School used to be and embraced a shared vision for a new and expanded institution of education. “As ground was broken for the new High School and Franklin Technology Center, I couldn’t help but think back to last August 17 when the school district delivered on its promise to open schools on time, helping families to take another step on their journey toward normalcy.”
Several other Region VII staff members participated in the Day of Unity, representing the agency’s role as a recovery partner.
“FEMA-ites were partners in the crowd, welcomed like neighbors, recognized as one of the major partners in the big team effort that was the Joplin response and recovery. We talk about 'whole community' a lot - Joplin exemplifies it,” Crystal Payton, a reservist, stated as she reflected on the Day of Unity.
After the events of the day, Public Affairs Specialist Merideth Parrish had an “ah ha” moment, “For the first time I truly experienced what recovery meant for Joplin and how, after a disaster, so much more is needed than what FEMA can bring. We are simply conduits of hope and help - offering just one piece of the disaster recovery puzzle.”
Dianne Andrews, a FEMA Reservist, thought back to the morning of the event.
“I had so many people come up to me and say ‘thank God for FEMA and the hard work you did here,’” One gentleman in particular kept staring and I wasn’t sure why. He was crying and he finally walked over and said, ‘I do not know who you are but please tell everyone we so appreciate FEMA and all of the people like you who have worked so tirelessly to help us; we have lots of volunteers and we have worked hard, but without you being here we would not be where we are today.’”
“After speaking with him and assuring him that he was going to be fine, I remembered walking away and having to pull myself back together. I was so full of pride because I’d been part of the FEMA team that played an important role from the start of Joplin’s recovery puzzle…I had never experienced such a humbling, fulfilling event. It summarized how important we, FEMA workers, are to the recovery process and how impactful my role, even as just one DAE, is to communities…We indeed touched the lives of everyone in Joplin just by helping and doing our jobs.”