There are many short stairways in Joplin, Missouri, that no longer lead to anything but blank slabs of concrete and crushed rock. The only indication that the corridor between 20th Street and 26th Street west of Rangeline Road was a long-established residential area are the crumbled steps that at one time led to porches and front doorways. New utility poles line each avenue, but they service nothing but the barren lots left behind by one of the most devastating weather disasters in American history.
It’s roughly 10 months since that historic EF5 tornado ripped through this small Midwestern city and at first sight, the recovery has been slow. In the hardest hit area, few homes have been rebuilt. The shredded remnants of amputated trees reach upward, appearing to have surrendered to winds so violent that the bark was ripped from the trunks and boughs. Reading the National Weather Service’s final report on the storm, you’d think it was science fiction.
Rubber garden hoses impaled tree trunks.
Cars were thrown hundreds of yards like Legos.
Reinforced concrete buildings were completely leveled, including Joplin High School, Walmart and Home Depot.
On the west side of town, St. John’s Regional Medical Center was shifted completely off its foundation — the entire hospital — by several inches. It still stands as tearing it down poses the threat of generating an earthquake due to underground mines.
The storm claimed 158 lives, making it the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 1953.
Until April 2012, the disaster in Joplin had nothing to do with St. Joseph’s College. Though it had been nearly a year since the storm laid waste to a large chunk of the town and displaced a large number of its 50,000 residents, the community was still sorely in need of help. So as many college students were heading off to exotic locales for spring break, a group of 21 SJC students and staff were on their way to Joplin to aid in the relief effort, forever forging a bond between the recovering city and a small liberal arts college half a continent away. Known as the Alternative Spring Break, the trip has become an annual rite of passage for the most philanthropic of the student body.
“Every year we go somewhere where there’s a need,” said Patrick Tracy, director of Campus Ministry on the Long Island Campus and leader of the Alternative Spring Break. “Either helping the vulnerable — maybe somebody who’s been the victim of a disaster, maybe an underserved community, and sometimes both.”
In the case of Joplin, it was both. The magnitude of the rebuild is a reflection of the scale of the destruction that the monster tornado created. It’s exactly why the Enhanced Fujita Scale rates tornadoes based on damage rather than power. The two generally go hand-in-hand, but a storm with 300 mph winds that roars through an undeveloped area of the Plains, and one that hits a densely populated section of a small city are two vastly different things. Both are rare, but only one is historic. The tornado that came through Joplin just before 6 p.m. on May 22, 2011, was nearly a mile wide, inflicting catastrophic EF5 damage along the majority of its 22-mile path.
To cover more ground, SJC students were split into groups and sent to a variety of work sites in Joplin. The largest project took the entire week and was based at Cecil Floyd Elementary School, where the students worked through a record-setting April heat wave constructing five sustainable garden boxes and a memorial garden. Cecil Floyd was one of several school buildings that were seriously damaged or destroyed by the tornado, but as several College students learned, the emotional toll that the storm inflicted on the children has been an even larger obstacle.
“As an adult it’s difficult, so imagine being a child and having to go through that,” said Crystal Tejada, a senior on the Brooklyn Campus who spent much of her time on the trip working directly with young students in the classroom. “For the kids it’s been especially hard, and they’re still recovering from it.”
The idea to build the gardens was conceived by a marketing and social media consultant named Sidney Ray. A Missouri native, Ms. Ray is the creator of Relief Spark, a grassroots nonprofit organization that facilitated the trip. She founded Relief Spark in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated her adopted hometown of New Orleans.
Groups of young people willing to donate their free time for community service are vital to disaster relief, Ms. Ray explained. But they’re not always easy to come across.
“For college kids to give up their spring break to come out to help a city that’s been destroyed by a tornado or a flood, it says a lot about their character,” Ms. Ray said. “They care about the community. They care about the people that they’re interacting with. They want to make a difference.”
Relief Spark is not alone in its need for enthusiastic volunteers. Though the gardens were the main project, students were also sent to multiple work sites being managed by AmeriCorps. Long Island Campus junior Janece Guerra worked at these sites throughout the week and was shocked by what kind of damage an EF5 tornado could do.
“This isn’t a small town,” she said. “This is a suburban area, and there’s just nothing except a few houses that have been rebuilt.” A veteran of two Alternative Spring Breaks — she spent her spring break in 2011 rebuilding oyster beds on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida — Janece spent much of her trip clearing debris and rubble from the properties of people who were not capable of doing the work alone.
“It’s rewarding,” she said of the trip. “What would I be doing while I’m home? Sitting on the couch? Writing papers? That can wait. I’m going to come out here and get my hands dirty and help people.”
Janece’s thoughts were echoed by all of her classmates from Brooklyn and Long Island. The Alternative Spring Break is not a requirement for any of these students. It’s a choice they make to give back. Many are also involved with community-service clubs such as Students Taking an Active Role in Society (S.T.A.R.S.), Campus Ministry, the Nicaragua Project and Habitat for Humanity, which sponsored its own spring break trip to southern California to work with the legendary organization constructing homes for families in need.
Service is not just part of the College mission, it’s a hallmark of the St. Joseph’s community at large. This cooperative approach on both campuses created a friendly and accepting atmosphere in Missouri. Most of the Long Island students had not met their counterparts from Brooklyn and vice versa, but it was impossible to tell.“The greatest part of this trip is the bonding,” Long Island Campus sophomore Christian Murphy said as he looked out over the garden boxes that he helped build. “I went on this trip knowing one person, and now we’re all friends. By the end of the week, you’re family.”
“I know some people think that the Long Island Campus and Brooklyn Campus are really different,” Crystal Tejada said. “But we really came here with the same mentality, the same goals. We want to help. We want to get involved and do something meaningful.”
To the group that traveled to Joplin together, there is no longer a need to make a distinction between the campuses at SJC. They were all representing one college and had one collective goal. At the end of the week, the five garden boxes all stood in the shadows of the rebuilt Cecil Floyd Elementary. A scattered stack of lumber had become a colorful collection of sturdy planters, built to provide fresh produce for an underserved school. Though the construction process had its rocky moments, in many ways it was an analogy for the camaraderie it helped create as the students worked together to finish the project.
“When we started, we didn’t know what we were doing. It was just trial and error,” sophomore Victor Cruz said of his first day on site. “But we finally got together in groups and we started making progress. It hit the point where we were all working together and we were like a machine. Like a real group.”
Joplin is nowhere close to being rebuilt. The devastation is still widespread, and the community is still shaken by the immense power of the storm. Nearly 160 lives were lost as a direct result of the tornado, and thousands more were scarred, both emotionally and physically. But the influx of generosity has helped the healing process, and the appreciation is evident wherever you go.
“I’ve had the privilege of visiting with and meeting lots of volunteers from around the world. And what it says first and foremost is that there is a lot of support and a lot of hope for the future,” Cecil Floyd Elementary Principal Elaina Edman said of the support.
“People are willing to roll up their sleeves and come and help us. We’re not rebuilding alone. That’s a really significant message.”