By Greg Johnson
JOPLIN, Mo. – At 5:41 p.m. on May 22, an EF-5 tornado with a base around a mile wide cut a six-mile swath of devastation through this southwest Missouri city, causing 162 deaths throughout Joplin and its surrounding communities.
At 5:41 p.m. on Oct. 30, the community gathered in the Leggett and Platt Athletic Center on the campus of Missouri Southern State University for a moment of silence before their beloved Lions took on the Missouri Tigers in a men’s basketball exhibition game that tipped off six minutes later.
All of the ticket proceeds for the “One State, One Spirit Classic,” which was televised on ESPNU, went to the tornado relief effort. Missouri won the contest, 114-68, before the largest crowd (3,477) ever to see a basketball game at Southern.
The game emerged from a conversation between coaches Robert Corn (Missouri Southern) and Frank Haith (Missouri). Athletics Directors Jared Bruggeman and Mike Alden became involved and filed the paperwork necessary to obtain a waiver for a Division I team to play an exhibition at a Division II team’s home court.
Missouri State also will play a men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader at Missouri Southern on Saturday to help with the relief efforts.
“We are all institutions connected by this state,” Bruggeman said. “People are excited that Missouri and Missouri State are bringing their teams here. It goes to show you the mentality of the people of Missouri.”
T-shirts were made featuring the three program’s mascots – Lions, Tigers and Bears.
Proceeds from the 3,477 tickets sold and merchandise purchased went to the tornado relief effort.
“The funds from those sales will go to tornado relief also,” Bruggeman said.
Darin Moore, the head athletic trainer at Missouri Southern, has lived in Joplin for 10 years and has witnessed how the relief efforts have brought people together.
“The fact they want to come here says a lot,” Moore said. “Division I teams coming to play at Division II schools just doesn’t happen. After the storm, they helped with a lot of the relief stuff. They joined in with our athletes and went out into the community to get debris cleared and pass out water. It’s big when the entire state comes in to help out.”
May 22 was a Sunday, and the Leggett and Platt Center was prepared to host graduation ceremonies. Missouri Southern held its pomp and circumstance the day before and Joplin High School’s graduation was coming to an end when the storm started rolling in.
As the sirens sounded, hundreds headed home to take shelter. Unknowingly, though, many of them headed straight into the tornado’s path, which damaged or destroyed around 7,500 homes and businesses.
Aaron Lewis, the facilities and operations coordinator at Missouri Southern, was home when he and his wife went next door because his sister-in-law was home alone with her two children.
The women and children took cover in a closet, and Lewis watched the local weather coverage nearby.
“All you could see was a fog or white cloud,’ Lewis said. “A couple of seconds later that went away and you saw a humongous black V on the screen. That’s when I took cover.”
The last report he heard was the tornado was headed near his sister-in-law’s house.
“It went on a straighter path,” Lewis said.
At the same time, his boss, Bruggeman, was taking his family into a storm shelter at his own home in north Joplin. It was the first time Bruggeman felt the need to use the shelter in his two years of living there.
“I was listening to the radio, and the reports were that a tornado had already hit,” Bruggeman said. “I could hear the heavy rain and wind. The more I listened to the radio, I knew it was bad.”
After the storm, Bruggeman headed to campus without knowing the full extent of the damage. He just knew that Joplin High’s graduation was ending around the time the sirens went off. He found a couple of hundred people milling around, but there were no injuries, since the tornado missed the campus.
The May 22 tornado destroyed roughly 7,500 homes and businesses.
“I tried to find out if everyone on our staff was OK, but the cell phones didn’t work,” Bruggeman said. “The only way to communicate was by text message.”
Missouri Southern had agreed with the Red Cross to be a designated shelter in case of emergency about three weeks before the storm. But no one was trained to handle something like this.
Lewis and Moore were designated as “captains” of the two biggest athletics buildings on campus, the Leggett and 3,200-seat Platt Athletic Center, where the men’s and women’s basketball teams and indoor track teams compete, and the Young Gymnasium, where the volleyball team plays.
For a week after the tragedy, they worked 12-hour shifts, with Lewis taking the day side and Moore handling the nighttime hours.
They estimate as many as 600 people took shelter there.
“The Red Cross really ran the shelter,” Moore said. “We were just in charge of the facilities. One was the cafeteria and child care during the day. The other was more where the cots were set up.”
In the hours after the tornado, athletics department personnel and student-athletes began showing up, some without prompting.
“Some of our student-athletes came because they were in the tornado,” Bruggman said. “Instinctively, this is where you go when you are a student-athlete. Some of them survived the tornado by climbing in their bathtubs. You could tell what some of them went through.”
One of the student-athletes occasionally babysat for Bruggeman.
“When I looked at her, she looked a little wide-eyed,” Bruggeman said. “She still stayed and helped set things up for other people, though.”
Responding to those in need was the common theme to handling this disaster.
“We had former and current student-athletes, and a lot of staff setting things up,” Lewis said. “We took all those chairs down that were set up for graduation. It wasn’t a hard task, because so many people showed up, and they were all willing to do something.”
For about a month, Missouri Southern was the shelter for those who lost everything they owned. Other facilities were used after that.
“In this part of the country, you know you are going to get tornados, but you don’t expect it to be a (Hurricane) Katrina situation,” Lewis said. “But that is what this ended up being like.”
Five months after the deadly storm, the damage that the tornado caused is hard to comprehend.
Damage is still present throughout the community more than five months after the tornado hit.
Trees stand sheared or uprooted completely, and empty lots sit where homes and business once stood. All that remains are slabs of concrete foundations.
In some parts of town, the street names are written on the asphalt so people can tell where they are driving.
The neighboring town of Duquesne was hit especially hard.
“I heard they lost 80 percent of the buildings,” Bruggeman said. “The tornado came about three-quarters of a mile from campus. We still had power, but there was no water pressure. We were taking water from the pool when we were operating as a shelter.”
The school began the Missouri Southern State University Tornado Relief Fund, which is used to help faculty, students and staff who were affected by the storm.
Bruggeman said five of his football coaches lost their homes. About 50 faculty members suffered the same fate.
“We had others who lost their cars,” said Bruggeman. “Insurance covers some of those things, but it doesn’t cover deductibles. We’ve issued scholarships to students who were impacted. Some of our basketball players lost all their clothes, and money was given to help them.”
There are also long-term plans for the fund after the storm destroyed the Joplin High School and the city’s middle school.
“We are creating ($1,000) scholarships for the Joplin and Duquesne communities, so if they choose to attend Missouri Southern, the fund will be available to them,” Bruggeman said. “If you are in eighth grade and lost your home, it still will have an impact on you years later.”
People who live in the southern part of Missouri live with the fact that severe weather can strike.
“We are in tornado alley,” Moore said. “We’re used to the sirens going off. Nothing really hits Joplin. But this one did.”
They also learned how quickly a community can pull together in times of crisis.