Two Years Later, Joplin Mayor Reflects On Impact Of Tornado

The massive tornado claimed the lives of more than 160 people in Joplin, Miss. Melissa Block speaks with Mike Woolston, who was mayor of Joplin at the time, about how the city has recovered, and what guidance he has for Moore, Okla., on moving forward from a devastating natural disaster.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On this day, two years ago, just after 5:30 p.m., a tornado roared into Joplin, Missouri. It cut a nearly straight line through town, splintering everything in its path. About 160 people were killed. Some 7,500 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Mike Woolston was the mayor at the time. He's now a city councilor in Joplin, and he joins us from Joplin to talk about his experience two years ago and how it might inform the task ahead for Moore, Oklahoma. Mike Woolston, welcome to the program.

COUNCILMEMBER MIKE WOOLSTON: Thank you.

BLOCK: Think back, if you would, two years ago today, and what memories are the most vivid for you of what happened during that tornado?

WOOLSTON: I think probably the most vivid thing for me, Melissa, is what the community looked like after the tornado. Obviously it happened at 5:41. But about two or three o'clock of Monday, the following Monday, the city manager, the fire chief and I went out for a visual tour of the area. Areas that you knew for 20, 30 years were completely unrecognizable.

The way I've described it to people in the past has been if you've ever seen any of the documentaries of World War II when the Allies were bombing Europe, that's what the level of destruction looked like. Everything just completely wiped away. Every landmark that you knew - I need to turn here to go to this place or turn there to go to that place - was gone. And streets that you knew like the back of your hand, you just didn't recognize where you were at.

BLOCK: Have you been in touch, Mr. Woolston, with city officials in Oklahoma, in Moore to talk about what they're going through and bring your experience there?

WOOLSTON: I had not personally been in touch with them. We sent down a team of first responders, police and fire department folks. They were down there for about 24 hours and have returned. And we're prepared to send other teams down there as they're needed.

But in addition, the city manager sent a list of notes to their mayor - city manager down there - of things that we had learned and we thought might be helpful for them and provided his cell number to them so that they might call if they like.

BLOCK: Mm. What would be on that list?

WOOLSTON: Oh, I think one of the things that I recall that we did on this was just get your streets cleared, something that you might not think of because it's so simple. It's something that's fairly important in terms of allowing people access to back in there, just to - at least where you can have one lane cleared, you know, from fallen trees, live power lines, stuff like that, get those streets cleared and then move on from there.

BLOCK: Mr. Woolston, if you walk or drive around Joplin today, do you see homes or businesses that show signs of damage still, maybe trees that have been splintered by the storm?

WOOLSTON: Sure. There are not many standing trees left in the tornado path and that will take some years to get replanted and regrow. But for the most part, what you'll see as you drive to the destructive area is newer housing, some housing that has been repaired and rebuilt, some still vacant lots. But you don't really see too many remnants of the destruction other than the lack of trees. But you do see a fair amount of new construction, things like that throughout the damaged area.

BLOCK: You mentioned rebuilding there in Joplin. And I wonder if - as people are rebuilding, do you find that they are building any differently? Are they making their homes any - possibly any safer than they were before, adding safe rooms or storm shelters?

WOOLSTON: I think quite a few people are adding safe rooms, and I think probably more of them at least talking about it. There was some effort moving forward shortly after the storm to have safe rooms required in all new construction. The city council declined to make that requirement out of concern that it might drive the price of housing up above where somebody could still afford it or whatever.

Certainly, we encouraged people to do that. And we, in fact, did make a couple of small changes in our building codes in that we required hurricane straps on roofs now that we didn't before. The number of anchor bolts in a foundation that actually holds the framing down to the foundation, we doubled the number of those as opposed to what we had pre-storm.

BLOCK: It's striking that the tornado hit Moore so close to the anniversary of what hit Joplin. This is tornado season. And I imagine that this news this week has taken you right back to what happened two years ago.

WOOLSTON: You know, things that you think was behind you when that storm went through Moore, Oklahoma, and that was just two days prior to our two-year anniversary.

I think that opened up a lot of wounds that were beginning to heal for the community. That night, I think everyone here in Joplin was pretty skittish about the weather and was keeping a pretty close eye on what was happening. It was, you know, heartbreaking to see what they've gone through down there. And certainly, we wish them the best. And if there's anything that we can do at all to help them answer questions, provide people or whatever, we're certainly willing to provide that if we can.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Woolston, thanks very much for talking with us.

WOOLSTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Mike Woolston was the mayor of Joplin, Missouri, when the tornado hit two years ago. He's now a city councilor there.

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