On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, killing 161 people. Some of those killed were Joplin high school seniors, who had tossed their graduation caps about an hour before the storm hit.
The one-mile wide tornado hit central Joplin at 5:41 p.m. where 531 businesses were shattered. About 7,500 houses, apartments and duplexes were also in the path of the storm. The destruction displaced nearly 20,000 people.
Joplin is a city of about 50,000 people. During a workday, that number swells to about 250,000 people. Joplin is a regional business hub according to Kirstie Smith with the Joplin Chamber of Commerce. She says losing that many businesses could have crippled the community.
“It really could have been the beginning of the end for a community of our size. We certainly lost an awful lot in less than 30 minutes time,” said Smith. “However, this community, the Midwest in general, our neighbors close to us, there’s an amazing spirit here in this part of the country. Amazing. No sooner had the tornado finished on its path, did we have folks out clearing debris, looking for loved ones, trying to salvage things, helping transport the injured to temporary facilities for hospital care. It’s not how anyone would want it to happen, but you truly saw the best in people at the worst of times.”
Smith says the aftermath of the storm was described by some as looking like a war zone.
People rolled up their sleeves and by the end of the summer, all debris had been removed. The rebuilding effort began.
Five years later most of those businesses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. The Chamber of Commerce set a goal of rebuilding 500 businesses and creating 500 new ones.
“Looking back at news stories or videos, I was a little taken aback. You forget how bad it really was. Today, we are doing great. Our businesses are thriving. We are plus 300 businesses from where we were pre-tornado, our population is good, homes have been rebuilt.”
Several events are planned for this weekend in Joplin to mark the five year anniversary of the storm, and the rebuilding effort that followed.