Joplin City Leader, Matt Stewart, Chief of JPD Reflects on the Night of the Joplin Tornado

Imagine the chaos and emotions of experiencing one of the largest natural disasters in the United States. Now imagine you are a police officer in your beloved community that has endured this devastation! Learn how Matt Stewart, Joplin, Missouri Police Chief reflects on that night, May 22nd, 2011.

Where were you when the tornado hit and how did you hear about it?

I was at home in southern Missouri, and my brother called me. He said that a tornado had hit the west side of Joplin. It is not abnormal for tornados in this area, and I figured if it was big enough, someone would call. Then he called back about 10 minutes later, and said that he heard that it had hit “St. John’s” and it was bad. I figured I needed to turn on my radio at that point. Of course, there was a lot of activity on the police radio so I decided to come up to Joplin.

Where did you first go once you went to Joplin that night?

I initially went up Rangeline and I stopped at 24th and Rangeline for a bit to help with security at the devastation at Walmart, Home Depot and that area that was hit pretty hard. I eventually ended up at 20th and Connecticut and we set up a command post. I spent the next day or two there.

When you were driving up Rangeline for the first time, what was your reaction, and separating that out from the fact that you had a job to do?

It was a bit crazy! It sounded really bad on the police radio traffic. Then I get up there, and businesses are gone, power lines are down and cars are everywhere. You are trying to keep the place secure and keeping people out. But then you have parents coming up and saying that their kid works up there and they want to find their kid. It was hard to keep people out so we abandoned that for a little bit. Driving down 20th street from Rangeline to Connecticut, it looked like a war zone. All the landmarks were gone, all the trees were gone, all of the houses were gone. So it was pretty surreal at that point. Even then I still had not grasped how big it was!

What was your reaction when people wanted to lend a hand?

It was odd and very humbling! It was weird how many people just showed up at 20th and Connecticut that night — all kinds of people, citizens, other law enforcement, people that had just dug themselves out of their home that had just lost everything. There was a couple of guys that showed up with a backhoe and bulldozers. They helped clear an area so a helicopter could land. We even had people from the Tulsa P.D. It was amazing seeing these people from that far away and getting to Joplin so quickly. Even to this day, I will hear about or talk to another police agency and find out that they were in Joplin helping, and I never knew. We had over 100 agencies that came to Joplin to help! It was so big, we were not able to know who all came.

Joplin Disaster Recovery Summit IS Worthwhile

If your profession deals with disaster recovery, why would you travel to a small city in the middle of the country to attend another conference? What makes the Joplin Disaster Recovery Summit worthwhile?

  • Every panel is comprised of leaders and elected officials that have lived through disasters in their own community. They have real-world experience that has given them an outlook that goes beyond any training and are willing to share their successes and their failures.
  • It’s a conference that chronicles the journey from response to recovery to resilience with communities that continue their recovery even today.
  • Panelists are coming from across the center of the country – Minot, ND; Pilger, NE; Cedar Rapids, IA; Greensburg, KS; Joplin, MO; Vilonia, AR and Tuscaloosa, AL. Each community was deeply affected by a disaster in the last decade.
  • Breakout sessions cover topics such as donations management, debris removal, the factors that determine recovery resources, the stress of long-term leadership, housing solutions to maintain population levels post-disaster, citizen engagement, helping children post-disaster, and ways to return lost photographs and lost pets.
  • Leonard Marcus from Harvard University, the conference keynote speaker, explores how leaders can lead more effectively during a crisis as well as the phenomenon of Swarm Intelligence and how it multiplies recovery efforts.
  • The conference is affordable. The $75 registration fee is meant to cover meals and materials. It’s organized by community members that want to pay it forward for the many kindnesses that Joplin received. Scholarships are available in special circumstances.
  • If you’re interested in seeing the progress Joplin has made in recovery since the 2011 tornado, there are opportunities for guided tours and to attend other commemorative events.

If this conference has piqued your interest, register soon as attendance is limited. For more information and to register, click here.

In the Words of Our Volunteer

Many thanks for the information regarding this event. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it, as much as I would love to, but I will definitely be there in spirit with you all.
In May 2011, myself, and a group of friends and family, some from Australia and some from the U.S embarked on an adventure doing Route 66, starting off in Chicago.
When leaving Australia, we heard about the devastating tornado that had hit Joplin.
As I live in a tropical part of Australia, we often get hit with cyclones, which are similar to your hurricanes, and have seen and suffered the devastation it causes, but when we decided to take a day out of our holiday to come help out in Joplin, I have to honestly say I was GOBSMACKED. The huge area of devastation was unbelievable! We worked alongside some amazing volunteers that day, and will never forget them. When being bused out to an area to work, a couple of young American guys heard our accents (because apparently we have one 😉 and they asked what we were doing there. When we told them we wanted to help, they couldn’t thank us enough. They were so thankful for the help, which was very humbling considering what you had all just been through. I remember these same young guys being injured that day, when a truck came in the back of one of the properties to pick up a vehicle, and bumped a power pole and it spun around and hit the guys in the legs. I never heard what injuries they had, but feared they may have had broken limbs or dislocation at the very least. I certainly hoped they were ok.
We also found a kitten alive under the rumble which was really heart-warming. We heard the stories of a couple of the home owners that day, whom had been in their houses when it hit, including an older lady, and was so glad they had come out of it alive, considering their houses was just a pile of rubble when finished.
I would really love to come back for a visit and see Joplin as it should be, rebuilt and proud, and hopefully I will get back there one day.
I am in awe of your spirit and grit, and how you came together as a community to help each other. That is one thing we have in common, we call it our ‘Aussie Spirit’, but obviously you guys have the same spirit – ‘American Spirit’ as well.
I will remember my experience in Joplin forever and always, and will always feel a bond and protectiveness towards Joplin. God Bless Joplin! xx

Kindest Regards
Leonie Mundey

Join us as we “Pay It Forward”!

There’s not a person in Joplin that would have believed that our community would be in the spot we are today – recovering from a tornado that destroyed a significant portion of our town and took the lives of 161 of our friends, family and neighbors. It’s been a long five years. We’ve celebrated some incredible successes, and have had our share of struggles at the same time. If it weren’t for the incredible number of volunteers that have helped us, we could never have come this far.

We have learned a lot about what long-term recovery means and are continuing to learn every day. As a way to mark the fifth anniversary of the most significant event to affect our community we began to look for a way to “pay it forward”. We decided that the best way was to share what we, and other communities impacted by disasters, have learned through a disaster recovery summit to be held in Joplin on May 19th and 20th.

Our tagline is “Real People, Real Lessons, Real Experience”. Our conference participants include community leaders from

  • Greensburg, Kansas – 2007 Tornado that destroyed 95% of their town
  • Tuscaloosa, Alabama – 2011 Tornado that killed 44 people
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa – 2008 Flooding with 10 square miles of flooding including 5,900 homes
  • Minot, North Dakota – 2011 Mouse River Flood with over 11,000 individuals displaced
  • Moore, Oklahoma – 2013, 2010, 2003 Tornados including an EF5 killing 24 people
  • Vilonia, Arkansas – 2014 Tornado with 16 fatalities
  • Pilger, Nebraska – 2014 Tornado destroying over 50% of the village

The conference begins Thursday afternoon with “The Road to Resilience” when leaders of impacted cities will discuss the successes and struggles in long-term recovery. Friday has two highlights – a keynote address from Dr. Leonard Marcus from Harvard University on Crisis Leadership and a set of TED-style talks that highlight pivotal moments in recovery. The rest of the day is filled with breakout sessions with practical advice and anecdotes from panelists that have lived and breathed recovery.

Consider attending this unique conference that you won’t find anywhere else – we’re limited to the first 300 attendees so register soon.

Join us as we all share together what we have learned!