By Ann Keyes, Missouri National GuardMay 16, 2012
JOPLIN, Mo. (May 16, 2012) -- Within hours of the deadly Joplin tornado on May 22, 2011, Gov. Jay Nixon activated the Missouri National Guard and told the people of Joplin they would remain on duty as long as needed.
One year later, the Guard remains on mission in the southwest Missouri town as rebuilding continues, said Maj. Gen. Stephen L. Danner, adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard.
"When the Missouri National Guard says we will stay as long as needed, we mean it," Danner said. "Since day one we've worked alongside the people of Joplin to help this community respond, recover and rebuild. Our Guardsmen will continue to support them as long as we are needed."
The night the tornado struck, members of Joplin's 203rd Engineer Battalion and supporting companies worked at search and rescue in the central disaster zone. Within days, military police, infantry Soldiers and aviation units joined in the state emergency duty.
At the height of the response, the Missouri Guard mobilized 377 personnel who worked at traffic control checkpoints and roving security patrols, in addition to assisting with transport and establishment of a Mobile Medical Unit for use by the staff of St. John's Mercy Hospital in Joplin.
One week following the devastating disaster, Missouri Guard personnel helped the community plan a memorial service at Missouri Southern State University. Both Nixon and President Barack Obama addressed mourners at Taylor Performing Arts Center that day in late May 2011.
The president cited selfless acts toward others, including stories of those who sacrificed their lives for people they'd never met.
"Amid heartbreak and tragedy, no one is a stranger," Obama said.
That sentiment has been echoed repeatedly since the storm hit that changed the landscape of the city of 50,000. Tens of thousands of people donated time and labor to those they never met, from nearby communities to those overseas.
Following the storm, Nixon tasked the Missouri National Guard with providing state oversight for the federal debris removal program in Joplin and nearby Duquesne. The Guard provided 45 personnel and developed debris clearance tracking mechanisms, liaised with municipal, state and federal partners, and resolved various property issues, resulting in a highly successful rapid removal process.
This effort continues in 2012, but by late 2011, over 1.5 million cubic yards of debris were removed; more than 3,100 Expedited Debris Removal parcels were cleared; and more than 1,100 commercial parcels in Joplin and Duquesne were cleared.
The Missouri National Guard also assists the Department of Workforce Development with the Missouri Disaster Recovery Jobs Program for Jasper and Newton Counties. The program creates temporary jobs to aid in the cleanup of public areas and restoration as a result of the disaster. Jobs include debris removal and restoration of public facilities and rights-of-way. More than 1,502 civilians have been temporarily employed through the program. Currently, 15 citizen-Soldiers serve the Disaster Recovery Jobs Program as part of the Guard's Task Force Phoenix.
"The mission has been very successful in the recovery of Joplin," said Guard task force member and Joplin liaison Capt. Bryan Dodge. "It is great to see all the houses and businesses that have been built in the last year. You can still see the scars of the tornado, but it is healing."
Task Force Phoenix works from the Guard armory in Joplin, within eyesight of the still standing but empty Mercy Hospital. The armory sustained damage from the tornado when the roof was torn off, ruining ceiling tiles and flooding the armory's drill floor from rains that followed the twister. The armory's 203rd Engineer Battalion museum was also exposed to water, soaking historic documents and photos.
"The state of Missouri quickly came to our aid so the armory could be used to help other citizens of Joplin," said Maj. Michael Brown, administrative officer of the engineering battalion. "We were able to do some demolition and reconstruction that improved the building."
Damaged pieces from the museum were recovered by the Missouri National Guard's Museum of Military History, and were delicately cleaned and preserved. The old photos, plaques, awards and flags are historically valuable, said Brown of the unit's lineage that dates to 1883. After preservation efforts were complete, all the artifacts were put back on display in the armory.
On May 21, members of the Joplin High School class of 2012, who have spent the last year learning in a mall instead of their high school that was annihilated in the storm, will receive diplomas on the MSSU campus. Once again, Nixon and Obama will speak to those most affected by the EF5 tornado.
Nixon told those at the Joplin memorial service in 2011 that that the spirit of Missourians would ensure the city perseveres.
"One year from today, Joplin will look different, and more different still in two years, and three and five," said Nixon, citing his state's 'Show-Me' attitude. "Once we have set our resolve, no storm, no fire, no flood can turn us from our paths."
One year later, Joplin does look much different, with countless businesses and homes rebuilt. Large swaths of land are barren where destruction and debris once stood as far as the eye could see. And the Missouri Guard remains on duty.