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'Don't do that!' Joplin's decade-long tornado recovery has lessons for the nation about surviving trauma

Frank Morris
Ashley Micklethwaite poses with a butterfly mural at Mercy Park in Joplin, Missouri. Many residents of Joplin who survived the 2011 tornado say they saw images of butterflies protecting them during and after the storm. Micklethwaite said she likes the metamorphosis aspect of butterflies and the idea of rebirth.

The EF5 tornado in May 2011 destroyed a third of Joplin, a city of 50,000, killing 161 people and causing $3 billion in property damage. “You never get over it, it just gets less raw,” one resident said after similar storms in Kentucky last month.

The devastating tornado outbreaks in Kentucky and parts of the Midwest in December sparked a massive recovery effort and left residents hoping life would soon return to some kind of normal.

But nearly 400 miles to the west, residents of in Joplin, Missouri, know better.

“You don't, you never get over it, it just gets less raw,” Ashley Micklethwaite said in mid-December.

Micklethwaite was president of Joplin’s school board when an EF5 tornado struck that city of 50,000 people. Ten years ago, heaps of splintered rubble stretched for miles.

Now, it looks tidy. New buildings and small trees are growing between stretches of open space. But, Micklethwaite said, even all these years later the pain remains fresh.

“If you're from here and you, and you look at over this landscape, I still see the scars,” Micklethwaite said. “And I see empty lots. And I know where people died.”

Tiffany Stout, a human resources director here, narrowly survived. She was wedged in a hallway with her husband Shane and their two small children.

“It was almost instantly the roof came off our house. And I could feel us coming off the ground. And Shane had his arms over us trying to hold us down,” she recalled. “You know you kind of have an out of body experience. I remember hearing this awful screaming. Then I realized it was me screaming.”

When she crawled from the wreckage covered in mud, splinters and insulation, her neighborhood as she knew it had vanished. Broken gas lines were hissing, downed power lines were sparking. Her husband’s shoulder was dislocated, her dog was missing. Like more than 9,000 of her fellow citizens, Stout lost most of her belongings.

Worse yet, she said, her children lost their innocence.

Stout’s daughter Allie was just three. And, like many children here in the weeks that followed, she relived the storm over and over again. She called it “playing tornado.”

“We spin around in circles, and we get in a house, and we lie down, and it's blasting off, and we have to lie on the ground,” Allie Stout said at the time.

Fast forward ten and half years, and the tiny girl caught in an imaginary whirlwind is now a confident, athletic 14-year-old. But Allie Stout said she still gets anxious when it’s stormy. And she keeps her most important possessions close at hand.

“My tornado bag is what I like to call it,” she said. “And, I have it right over here, it’s just this little backpack. And inside I have my blanket that I liked to have when I was a kid ... and then Pooh Bear. Those two both survived the tornado.”

Frank Morris
Allie Stout, left, was three years old at the time of the tornado; she keeps a tornado bag with important possessions close at hand. Her mother, Tiffany Stout, says she remembers the feeling of the roof coming off and their house lifting off the ground. “You kind of have an out of body experience,” she says. “I remember hearing this awful screaming. Then I realized it was me screaming.”

Tiffany Stout said it’s easy to tell which people survived the tornado. They stick out when there’s a tornado watch at work.

“You can look around the room when you’re gathered there and know who’s been through something like this,” she said. “Because I know I have to talk to myself: 'Breathe, you can’t start crying, you can’t freak out, keep it together and let’s be logical.'”

That’s a normal response, said Joplin psychiatrist Charles Graves. He said the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” doesn’t apply here. In fact, it’s backwards. He said trauma can make people more vulnerable to the next big setback.

“Those people who have had the most trauma are more likely to develop problems after a subsequent trauma,” he said. “Because this was such a massive trauma and so many people were exposed, that is, um, an environmental hit to them.”

Graves said that kind environmental hit or shared trauma can show up in higher rates of suicide and drug abuse. But he said there can also be an upside.

“I think there's a psychological awareness across this community,” he said. “There's an awareness that, life is precious and short, and you control what you control, prepare for the future. And you don't have control over everything.”

But that realization is hard won. And Tiffany Stout said her heart aches for Kentucky tornado victims. She said she knows what they’re in for.

“You're scared and you're thankful to be alive. And in the days and the weeks and the months come where you're looking for things that you can't find and you realize, oh, that's gone,” she said. “And then dealing with the insurance, finding a new home and that fear. And there's anger too.”

Anger that can worsen as the recovery drags on. Because something as profound as a tornado doesn’t heal itself in a year or two.

Joplin’s recovery changed disaster responses elsewhere

Lead and zinc mining built Joplin, Missouri. Manufacturing and trucking sustained it. But the Sunday evening tornado in May 2011 mowed down and chewed up fully a third of this largely working class city. The storm took 161 lives and destroyed $3 billion worth of property.

But the city has managed to grow since then. And there’s little doubt that Joplin, and probably the rest of the country, is better prepared for the next one.

Frank Morris
One of many statues at Mercy Park in Joplin, Missouri.

New homes here now use more steel to secure roofs to walls and walls to foundations, following national standards established after the Joplin tornado, said Bryan Wicklund, the city’s chief building official.

And it’s not just houses that are better prepared. The tornado also forced officials, like Joplin’s emergency management director Keith Stammer, to think big.

“If I had walked into a disaster planning committee meeting with a scenario in my back pocket that basically wiped out a third of Joplin and caused us to not be able to help ourselves from the get go, I'd been laughed out of the meeting,” Stammer said. “Not now. That is in our planning.”

Stammer said the tornado also forced a cultural change in the way first responders deal with post traumatic stress. The old model was to just “suck it up,” he said.

“But all of a sudden, when all of you, or many of you, are having psychological problems, emotional problems to this, you become much more empathetic,” he said. “You become more sympathetic.”

That goes for average citizens too. Doug Walker, a clinical psychologist from New Orleans who travels the world helping communities struck by disaster, said when he got to Joplin he found residents reluctant to talk about their feelings.

“So, when you ask someone, ‘How you doing?’ (they say) ‘I’m fine. I’m good. Joe Smith needs you down the way,’” Walker said.

But Walker had a list of five things to check on: work, relationships, play, sleep, and consumption of food, drugs and alcohol. A focus group in Joplin hit on a simple question that opens up informal therapy: “How’s your five?”

“A light bulb went off my head and I'm like, you've just created, you just managed to put together a peer-on-peer support that really has never been done before,” he said.

Since then, he’s used that peer-on-peer support to get disaster victims talking from Florida to Fukushima.

The Joplin tornado even led to a big improvement in disaster food.

Will Cleaver co-founded Operation BBQ Relief in the days just after the Joplin tornado. He and some fellow competitive barbecue cooks rushed there after the storm to feed victims. Volunteers and corporate support poured in and they prepared 20 times more meals than they thought possible and launched a non-profit in a moment of downtime.

“We sat there, go, you know, have we found something that's needed, not just today, but in the future,” Cleaver said.

Now they have huge smokers staged across the South and Midwest ready to deploy on a few hours’ notice to the latest fire, flood, hurricane or tornado. They’ve served more than 9.5 million servings of smoked meats, 60,000 just last month in greater Mayfield, Kentucky.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Volunteer Mike Moore from Urich, Missouri, loads a pork loin into a smoker while Shannon Kimball of Operation BBQ Relief holds open the door at their temporary headquarters at Food Truck Central in Kansas City, Kansas, in April 2020. Operation BBQ Relief was providing meals for first responders, veterans and people who were homeless during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But of all the good ideas that followed the tornado, one stands out like a light at the end of a tunnel, said Vicky Mieseler, an executive at the Ozark Center, a group of mental health clinics in Joplin.

“The best thing that happened to us is when the school superintendent said, ‘We're going back to school in August,’” Mieseler said.

The superintendent was C.J. Huff, and that goal was a tough one because half the schools were severely damaged, and many of teachers and students were homeless.

The dark side of recovery

Huff’s timeline gave him three months to get the district on back its feet.

“I was a walking heart attack. I gained about, uh, gosh, 60 pounds,” Huff said. “I'm a stress eater. You know, we all have our coping mechanisms, and mine was ice cream and lots of coffee. Lots of coffee, lots of ice cream.”

Huff got school started on time by building classrooms in abandoned big box stores. He was a local hero, all over the national news. He turned to rebuilding demolished schools, taking pains to make them better and safer than the ones they replaced. He was making lots of big decisions, and spending lots of money.

And within a few months, all of that had changed. Exhausted, distraught citizens began fighting him at every turn, Huff said.

Frank Morris
C.J. Huff, who was superintendent of Joplin's schools when the tornado hit in May 2011, was a hero after he got schools open by August. Within a few months, he says, exhausted and distraught residents began turning against him. Now a consultant, he says disillusionment follows every disaster.

“One of the things I learned is that when emotion and logic collide, emotion wins every time,” Huff said. “It didn't matter what we brought, whether it was data or subject matter experts, it didn't matter.”

Huff was demonized by some residents. He said he considered suicide and was eventually driven out of the job.

He wasn’t the only one, Mieseler said.

“Several years after the tornado, you started to see major change in leadership positions,” she said.

There’s a new city manager, and a new hospital president. Now, Huff is a disaster consultant, and he said every single one his colleagues is a former public official ousted after a disaster.

“All of them,” he said. “We call it the exclusive club that nobody wants to belong to.”

Huff said disillusionment follows every disaster, as recovery timetables get pushed back.

Micklethwaite, who was Joplin’s school board president when the tornado hit, sees it as a cautionary tale.

“So Kentucky, listen up! Don't do that!” Micklethwaite said. “Just, just know that your leaders today are making the very best decisions that they can.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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