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Joplin: The next 10 years

Former Gov. Jay Nixon spoke at a memorial service on the 10th anniversary of the Joplin tornado that left 161 people dead on May 22, 2011. Below is a copy of his speech. 

We all join today in somber remembrance of our loss and take inspiration from the spirit that led the Remarkable Recovery of Joplin.

A town on the edge of the windswept plains expects — and gets — rough weather from time to time. But the death and destruction brought down on this community 10 years ago was of a different order of magnitude: 14,000 people made homeless in 19 minutes. 161 lives lost. We will never forget the wreckage we witnessed. The sorrow runs deep in our bones, and in our souls.

The Bible tells us that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Joplin’s story is a testament to this truth. Because in its darkest hour, the light shined through.

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

From 400 towns across the Midwest, an army of first responders converged in Joplin within hours, bringing with them order, confidence, safety … and hope.

Two hundred thousand men and women — Good Samaritans from every state in this great nation — came to Joplin, heeding the call to serve their fellow man and fortify their own spirits by helping others in need.

Homes and schools, businesses, and churches were reduced to rubble.

And before it could be rebuilt, it all had to go.

Dump trucks and dozers rumbled and roared from dawn to midnight that long, hot summer.

Volunteers followed in their wake with chainsaws and shovels, buckets, and wheelbarrows. Sometimes the only tools they had were their bare hands.

Brick by brick and board by board, they cleared the path to recovery.

And there was paperwork to do; mind-boggling mountains of it.

Car titles. Birth certificates. Drivers licenses. Property deeds. Thousands upon thousands of documents had been swept up and carried away in the tornado, never to be seen again.

Public servants sprang into action to replace them, helping the people of Joplin reclaim their lives and livelihoods one piece of paper at a time.

As summer dragged on, Joplin’s progress went into high gear. Nine schools were rebuilt and ready for an on-time start, on August 17. Safe rooms were built and power restored.

A new Joplin High School was built in the old mall in just 55 days. With the help of Boy Scouts camped out in the dust and heat, desks and chairs were moved in and ready to go when students arrived.

One little problem: no books. The tornado carried them off, too.

But thanks to a generous contribution from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the books were replaced with laptops — jumpstarting the next 10 years of education and learning. [I met and thanked in person.]

Joplin is better and stronger today than it was before the tornado struck.

When you look at what this community has accomplished over the last 10 years, it is nothing short of miraculous.

A new medical school and dental school were built in this healthcare hub — with two great hospitals and thousands of health care workers that call this region home.

I could go on and on about businesses, groups, and people that dug new foundations to begin anew.

But rebuilding homes, schools, businesses, hospitals, and neighborhoods was just the tangible part — the part we can see.

What about the intangibles … the inner resources that made Joplin’s recovery possible and will drive its future?

In the last 10 years, many people have asked me why Joplin succeeded.

What is the secret sauce that caused so many folks to come together in a united cause? What was the key ingredient that not only produced the will to rebuild — BUT the confidence to aim higher and the commitment to build back better.

What enduring lessons does Joplin offer us all in this moment when our nation is in the midst of unprecedented suffering — from the pandemic, political divisions, and personal mistrust?

The first of those value-laden lessons can be seen in the people of Joplin: LOYALTY to home and community.

YOU stayed.

11,000 cars destroyed.

Thousands of families left homeless. 161 deaths.

900 businesses shuttered.

Mountains of work to do.

A catastrophe of this magnitude would hollow out some towns.

Folks would simply cut their losses, pack their bags and go. NOT HERE.

Not Joplin.

You took the Righteous Path.

We are here this evening because “the people of Joplin are the toughest people on God’s green earth.” I said it first at the memorial service 10 years ago, and it is as true today as it was then. And, I suspect, it always will be.

But loyalty and toughness are just one part of the equation. Faith had a hand, as well.

Not just the personal relationship many of us have with our God, which runs deep in this community’s ethos.

But also, faith in the mission to rebuild and renew. Faith that the reinforcements would arrive. Faith that these people of this community were not alone. Faith that things would get better. Inexhaustible faith that after the hard work of cleaning up the ruins, the hard work of rebuilding would bring this community back.

The faith of Joplin gave it the courage to succeed.

Looking at the pictures this week, once again of this violent, tragic storm, it seems amazing anyone would be up to the task.

But, I remember, when on August 17, the first-day school attendance showed over 95 percent of students returned — we smiled and rested for just a minute realizing we were making progress, real progress.

The FAITH was building.

This community also respected each other and all who came to help. General Ward and the Missouri National Guard arrived to help keep the peace, protect any valuables left in the “Red Zone” of the wreckage, and remove the debris.

You made their job easy because you respected the property and possessions of your neighbors and friends.

People left with nothing were fed, clothed, and housed thanks to the kindness of thousands upon thousands of strangers. And throughout their long ordeal, the people of Joplin showed their thankfulness, even when all they had to give in return was a handshake or a hug.

And thankfulness is another key ingredient in Joplin’s success.

The people of Joplin worked with others and were always thankful for the labor and resources.

Thankful for their government agencies and leaders — the mental health leaders like Dr. Keith Schaeffer who understood the necessity of providing mental health support at “Wills Place,” for children struggling to recover from the impact of the disaster on their lives. Joplin is better than it was 10 years ago.

The Departments of Revenue, Insurance, Economic Development, Social Services, Health and Senior Services, Public Safety and Transportation as well as the Missouri Housing Development Commission all came to Joplin and served this community from our one-stop state resource center at 705 Illinois Avenue.

You may not remember their names. But I’ll bet you a steak dinner at Wilder’s that you’ll remember their faces. Because they lived with you and worked with you to get you back on your feet.

Government with a heart. Government that worked the way it is supposed to. How about that?

So what is the ultimate takeaway for us, tonight?

Why Joplin has come back better than ever when other communities might have collapsed?

I believe we will find it in Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Thank you and God bless.