A long, hard road ahead, people of Joplin know they are not alone

Breaking through clay and bedrock, volunteers use sledge hammers, pick axes and shovels to dig out out a frame for a retaining wall at the site of a new home in the heart of the tornado damage. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

JOPLIN — As tough as they are, the people of Joplin learned two lessons.

First, they can’t rebuild their town alone. Second, they aren’t alone.

“Sometimes, we say we don’t know if God is in the miracle business,” said Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean.

“Well, look at our city,” she said. “God is still in the miracle business.”

Joplin is still a city of vacant lots, one year after the most powerful tornado that can be measured cut a swath through the middle third of the city of 50,000, from the southwest city limits to the northeast city limits.

Gone in the 30 minutes or so in the late afternoon of May 22, 2011, that it took the slow-moving EF-5 twister — actually three tornadoes that spun themselves into a single mile-wide monster — were some 7,500 homes in the poorest part of the town, and some 2,500 commercial businesses that provided thousands of jobs.

Maura Taylor, director of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri which serves the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, said 65 percent of the destroyed homes were rental properties, and nearly half of those were government Section 8 properties for the low income.

But then, almost as soon as the tornado left, the miracles began.

A regional disaster plan, spearheaded and funded by federal and state government, kicked in, first responders — police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians — arrived from as far away as Tulsa, Wichita and Kansas City as fast as their emergency vehicles could take them there.

Then the volunteers came — from across the entire nation.

And they are still coming.

On June 6, one year and two weeks after the tornado, Mayor Colbert-Kean welcomed 136 more who came by chartered bus from Kansas City for a day of work, some of it backbreaking in the late spring southwest Missouri heat, on a day of service sponsored by Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

The Kansas City volunteers re-organized the Catholic Charities warehouse where basic supplies such as food, personal hygiene items, clothing, dishes and tools are still coming in.

They picked up trash, nails and glass still strewn along acres of empty lots that was once a neighborhood.

They provided landscaping at Cunningham Park, devastated a year ago, but where the names of each of the 161 people who died on May 22, 2011, have been immortalized on a bronze plaque, and where 161 trees have been planted around the memorial.

And with pick axes, shovels and the enthusiasm of youth, they cut through two feet of topsoil, clay and bedrock to prepare a retaining wall around a brand-new home built by “Help Joplin Rebuild,” an inter-faith consortium spearheaded by Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri that is turning empty lots back into neighborhoods, one home at a time.

That is the continuing miracle of Joplin, the mayor told the Kansas City volunteers at a hamburger and hot dog barbecue that ended the day of work.

“Everybody became a neighbor and helped everybody out,” Colbert-Kean said. “It will stretch to five to seven more years (before Joplin fully recovers) but we are on our way. And Catholic Charities was here on Day One, and you are still here.”

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri was a two-person operation — interim director Kyle Schott and an administrative assistant. And on that day, Schott was on the other side of Missouri, helping the victims of a devastating Mississippi River flood.

That evening, Schott got a call that Joplin had been devastated. Then he got a call from Mike Halterman, CEO of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, with a four-word message: “Kyle, we’re coming in.”

The next day, Monday, Halterman assembled his team, who assembled and organized volunteers. On Tuesday morning, they arrived at St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Joplin, the only one of the two Catholic parishes in Joplin left standing.

For the next five days, the volunteers from Kansas City organized a makeshift relief center in the gymnasium of adjacent McCauley Catholic High School, sorting through relief supplies that were coming, unsolicited, from coast to coast by the truck load. The professional case managers from Kansas City began receiving people, many left with just the clothes they were wearing, as they put them in touch with services to get them through the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year.

No value could be put on that work, said Taylor, who began as Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri’s permanent director on May 13.

Abbie Young, Stacie Young, Maddie Young and Tara McGranaghan, in one day, helped reorganize the Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri warehouse where donations are still arriving for tornado victims and the poor of Joplin. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

And the money, desperately needed money, poured in from parishes in each of the state’s four Catholic dioceses, from Catholic Charities USA, from federal, state and local disaster relief plans, and from people who simply sent in checks.

“We had two employees,” Taylor said. “With the help of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, St. Louis and Wichita, we were able to respond to needs immediately.”

Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri now has 35 employees, including nine case managers assigned to Joplin to help people get back on their feet.

“Many of them are hard-working people who were living paycheck to paycheck and were left acutely poor,” Taylor said.

One year later, they are still coming.

“We have people coming in who haven’t asked for help before,” she said. “They thought that a year later, things would be better. Well, here it is a year later and now they realize they are not better.”

The more affluent neighborhoods have already been rebuilt through insurance settlements.

But the acres and miles of vacant lots were once the homes of people living in rental properties who didn’t carry renter’s insurance, Taylor said. Some vacant lots were once the homes of elderly on small fixed incomes who may have paid off their mortgages, but they let their homeowner’s insurance lapse in order to afford food and medicine.

Those are the people who still need help, if they have not already left Joplin to move in with friends or relatives.

“We will help them one person at a time,” Taylor said.

One such person is Don Atteberry. He and his two grown daughters were enjoying their usual Sunday dinner when the weather began to look threatening.

“We turned on the Weather Channel and they were saying it was going to pass us on the west and go toward Carl Junction,” he said.

Suddenly, the roar.

Atteberry and his daughters huddled in a solid oak cabinet, clutching hands, and rode out the storm that lifted them off the floor. They escaped with nothing but cuts, scrapes and bruises, some of them suffered as they tunneled through the rubble toward their front door, then outside to check on their neighbors.

Don Atteberry turned 90 years old last month.

He stood at his vacant lot at the corner of 24th and Pennsylvania streets and watched the Catholic Charities volunteers swing the pick axes and dig with the shovels for the retaining wall on the soon-to-be completed Help Joplin Rebuild house.

He brought two homemade signs: “The tornado killed the house that stood here, but not me” and “God bless and thanks to the volunteers.”

Atteberry carried insurance on the house he had lived in for half a century, but not enough to rebuild at today’s construction prices in excess of $100,000.

But Atteberry put his insurance settlement into the back, and it will be enough to build the next Help Joplin Rebuild house in the neighborhood for him, and hopefully in time to invite his two grown daughters, one of whom he has lived with since the tornado, for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Without Catholic Charities’ help, I wouldn’t have gotten it,” he said. “I’m all for it.”

Gabe Tischler, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri disaster relief coordinator, and Steve Williams, construction project manager, said the coalition that formed under the banner of Help Rebuild Joplin has already completed six new homes, with more in process, and has done major repairs on another 100 or more.

They could do more and do it faster if someone would donate a pickup truck. Or three. Or five. Both Williams and Tischler spend a good part of each day shuttling supplies back and forth from site to site and can take from the Catholic Charities warehouse only what they can carry in their personal cars.

Doesn’t have to be a brand-new, fancy pickup truck. In fact, old ugly will work just fine as long as it is in decent running condition and can haul lumber, paint, dry wall and tools.

And he still is getting volunteers raring to go. In fact, that is the reason that Help Rebuild Joplin can build a $100,000, three-bedroom, two-bath home for under $40,000.

“We couldn’t do it without the volunteer help, just couldn’t do it,” Tischler said.

“Since Day Three, we’ve had 23,000 volunteers come to Joplin to work just through Catholic Charities,” he said.

Through connections with the broad ecumenical network that sprang up, Tischler said. Help Joplin Rebuild has been able to get supplies such as siding, windows and roofing material donated.

A pricetag can be put on that kind of material. The volunteer human labor is priceless, he said, pointing to the work on the retaining wall that the small army of Kansas City volunteers were preparing by hand.

“I don’t have to spend $700 to rent a backhoe,” he said.

President Barack Obama gave the commencement address to the Joplin High School Class of 2012. Among the 20 Joplin citizens invited to a private reception to meet the president was Gabe Tischler.

“That shows that somebody, somewhere knew what we were doing,” Tischler said.

Carole and Steve Yagel also knew. They were sharing a rental house with friends near Joplin High School, but the lease and the utility bills which they helped pay were in the name of their friends. When they applied for direct disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they couldn’t prove Joplin residence.

One year later, they are still coming to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri for food.

“You see the movie, ‘Twister’?” she asked. “Believe it.”

Catholic Charities helped Carole get new glasses that were lost in the tornado, as well as a new set of dentures, also lost.

“Now I can eat right,” she said.

But one thing that she found, miraculously she said, was a small white box with a medal inside.

A cradle Catholic, Carole married Steven in a civil ceremony in 1987, then applied for an annulment of Steven’s first marriage under the Pauline Privilege, so they could receive the Sacrament of Matrimony.

It was approved by the Vatican in 1995. With the notice of the annulment, Pope John Paul II sent her a small silver medallion with his image in a small white box in which Carole also kept her folded birth certificate.

“I had put this on my dresser before the tornado,” Carole said. “Then the storm took our house, then the high school. When we were able to get outside, this was the only thing we could find. Everything else, our clothes, everything, was gone.”

Marchella Claar was another renter who came to Catholic Charities for help. She had graduated, after years of study, with a double bachelor’s degree from Missouri Southern State University in Joplin on May 21, 2011 and hadn’t even begun a job search.

She, her husband Larry, and her 17-year-old son Brandon were living in a third floor apartment, and she and Brandon had settled in for the evening to watch, of all movies, “Independence Day” about an alien invasion to destroy the earth while Larry was at work.

“I was looking at the sky and it was green,” Claar said. “Then my husband called and said the sirens were going off and it was headed our way.”

Marchella and Brandon ran to the lowest floor and crouched under a stairwell.

“A big TV box came from somewhere and blocked stuff from falling down the stairwell,” Marchella said. “It seemed like it took forever, but when the tornado passed, the only thing left standing was that square stairwell.

“We had to dig ourselves out,” she said. “We made it to our truck which was destroyed, but we were able to sit inside. I somehow was able to call my husband, and I said, ‘We made it, but everything is gone.’”

The Claars were taken in by friends for a week, then they moved to Iowa to live with her family for the rest of the summer.

They returned to Joplin in August so that Brandon could start and finish his senior year at Joplin High. That month, they were given a FEMA trailer to live in, and they are still living there.

But not for long.

In October both she and Larry were able to get six-month contract jobs through Catholic Charities. In April, as her contract expired, Taylor offered Marchella a full-time, permanent position as a disaster support specialist, helping others find help.

Then came the really good news. Habitat for Humanity, which is also doing yeoman’s work rebuilding homes and lives, approved the Claar’s application for the very first home they will own.

And on top of that, on June 15, members of the Kansas City Chiefs football team will come to Joplin to break ground on the home and, hopefully, complete construction before the contract on the temporary FEMA trailer expires in November.

Marchella said she is grateful for all the help she has received, including the FEMA trailer. But it won’t be the home her Habitat for Humanity house will become.

“It’s not a bad place, but it’s not ours,” she said of the trailer. “This will be ours. Everything is going in the right direction, but we still got a ways to go.”

A tornado survivor herself, Marchella knows what the survivors who still come to Catholic Charities have gone through.

“It helps me relate to the clients, but it’s hard sometimes,” she said.

And sometimes, like a woman whose tears prompted new tears from Marchella, what is needed at a particular moment is a friend to cry with.

“We both stood there crying, and then we were fine,” she said. “We just needed to get it out.”

The old two-storefront downtown Joplin headquarters of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri is still coming together.

But it was Taylor’s idea to decorate it in a special unique way.

Among the bags and bags of clothing and bedding that came flooding to Catholic Charities from around the nation were a dozen or so hand-stitched, crib sized quilts. Taylor took those quilts and hung them on the walls of the Catholic Charities office in Joplin.

“I wanted something to make this feel like home, and what feels more like home than a quilt?” she said.

Taylor beamed with pride as she showed off the office. Over here, her case managers work. And over there in a large room, is where she is planning, while still neck deep in disaster relief work, a new Strengthening Families program, open to the entire city.

“You have to be thinking of what you will be five years from now,” Taylor said.

Mayor Colbert-Kean is confident where Joplin will be in five years. Back to where it once was, with the help they were humbled to receive freely but proud enough to accept and appreciate.

“We’re not going to be known as the Tornado City,” Colbert-Kean said. “We are going to be known as the city that came back.”

With years of work left to do, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri is still in need of cash donations, as well as donations of used, working order work vehicles, as well as both unskilled volunteer labor and skilled labor, including dry wall hangers, electricians and plumbers. Cash donations can be sent to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, 601 S. Jefferson St., Springfield, MO 65806. Volunteer labor teams and those with work vehicles to donate can contact Gabe Tischler at the Joplin Donation and Distribution Center, 113 E. 9th St., Joplin, MO 64801; (417) 616-9314 or (417) 499-2920.


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November 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph