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The Joplin Tornado: Reflecting on a Decade of Recovery

Olive Thompson, the CFO’s communications intern, shares her perspective as a young person growing up in the Joplin community as it recovered from one of the worst tornados in history.

Portrait of Olive Thompson

The Community Foundation of the Ozarks stands alongside the residents of Joplin this weekend as they reflect and remember the horror of May 22, 2011, when the city was forever changed by what still ranks as one of the worst tornados in U.S. history. The CFO, with our colleagues at what is now the Joplin Regional Community Foundation, started raising charitable recovery funds within 48 hours. At the five-year anniversary in 2016, the CFO and the JRCF made the last of 106 grants totaling $6.1 million. That number doubles when including the other charitable funds established with us for recovery work, including the campaign for the Joplin Regional Medical School Alliance. To reflect on that decade of recovery, we asked Olive Thompson, our communications intern for the spring semester, to share her perspective as a young person growing up in the Joplin community.

May 21, 2021

Greening Again: Regrowth in the Wake of Destruction

Most people from Joplin would remember where they were on the evening of May 22, 2011. I was at my grandparents’ house, watching the news broadcast as the television screen turned crimson, pink, and yellow — hallmarks of an EF5 tornado forming on the radar. There was a strange sort of silence outside, as though all of the birds and cicadas were at attention. Green clouds angrily cast down an eerie light over my grandparents’ pasture, and everything was still.

We watched as the radar became an angry mess of red, and when the weatherman himself went off air to take shelter, we ran to the storm cellar behind the house moments before the funnel touched down. The sound of a tornado has been described as a freight train, grizzly bear, or waterfall — what I heard in the next few minutes was all, but none, of these at the same time.

I was just 12 years old when the Joplin tornado struck. Now, at 22, while I can recall the fear, tragedy, pain and destruction that the storm left in its 22-mile wake, I can also distinctly remember the resilience, strength, and selflessness that so many people from around the Joplin community — and beyond — showed to my town in its time of need.

Joplin down not out 16x9

Even in the first few minutes after the tornado, medical professionals, first responders and civilians were rushing into the destruction to help triage victims and be of aid however they could. I remember my own mother, a registered nurse at Freeman Hospital, assisting in triage after the tornado laid waste to so much of the town I had grown up in.

A walk through the very same path that the tornado took 10 years ago is marked with touching memorials, art installations and signs of new growth. It’s still very clear where the destruction took place — for miles, there are no mature trees, but instead, young trees planted by volunteers, growing as signs of hope and recovery.

Rebuild joplin 16x9

Looking back on the recovery process, I am astounded to know the deep generosity of this region and the transformation that selfless gifts of time, treasure and talent has had on the Joplin community. I may not have realized it at the time, but through my internship at the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, I learned more about philanthropy’s impact in the community, and how community foundations are an enduring resource in disaster recovery and community betterment.

Reflecting on the Joplin tornado after watching my town navigate its lasting effects for a decade brings to mind stories of hardship, but also of profound resilience. At 12 years old, I watched the tragedy as friends lost their homes and belongings, family members lost their lives, small business owners lost their livelihoods, and our community lost resources and landmarks. At 13, I watched in reverence as nonprofits, selfless individuals and organizations of diverse backgrounds helped our community take the first shaky steps forward to recovery.

Joplin five year grant 16x9

A decade later, I look on with pride as Joplin continues to thrive upon its commitment to build back stronger. New arts and cultural organizations help to beautify and diversify the city, conservation agencies work to preserve our natural spaces for generations to come, and a revitalized downtown showcases some of the very best in retail, dining and entertainment. In all of its forward momentum, however, Joplin has not lost sight of the great losses that so many suffered that evening in May.

While the Joplin tornado showed the worst in nature, it brought out some of the very best in people. I am deeply proud of our community, and forever grateful for those who supported it in myriad ways.

I know it seems for miles the world’s at end
But even in all this are naked trees greening again

—from “Naked Trees,” by Joplin-native band Me Like Bees

Olive Thompson is the Communications Intern for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and a recent graduate of Drury University.

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