Families aided by efforts of MLB, Royals and Cards, while memories resurface
By Chad Thornburg
JOPLIN, Mo. -- Today's Joplin is an unusual sight. It's a cross between new and old. An odd combination of underdeveloped, developed and developing. And then there's what's missing.
The remnants, or lack thereof, of the destruction that tore through the southwestern Missouri town on May 22, 2011 -- large slabs of concrete that once held a middle school, a flattened lot without a home or the Arby's restaurant that has yet to return to Joplin. There's a large stretch of town that's mostly void of trees, and even the ones that did survive the more than 200-mph winds don't have branches or leaves.
The town is healing but isn't without reminders of the devastating losses from the EF-5 tornado that touched down two years ago Wednesday, killing 161, injuring over 1,000 and costing nearly $3 billion in estimated damages.
With a similar tornado hitting Moore, Okla., a town 225 miles southwest down I-44, so close to the two-year anniversary, the feelings, stress and anxiety of the Joplin tornado have resurfaced.
Development is moving at a rapid pace, but there are still places where time stands still, locked into place since the storm subsided.
Emerson Elementary School, one of the area schools that was left standing, is closed down but has yet to be repaired or knocked down. In front of the school is a sign with bold black moveable type detailing important dates for May 2011 -- perfect attendance lunch, Eagle Pride day, no school on the 30th -- and a last day of school, early dismissal on June 3, that came early on May 22.
Joplin is filled with scenes like Emerson Elementary, remnants of a day all its residents remember clearly and will not soon forget.
But there are also scenes like Picher Avenue or Joplin Avenue, where brand-new homes have sprung up left and right and vacant lots are no longer the norm.
Thanks to the efforts of Major League Baseball and its two Missouri teams -- the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals -- 10 families now have a new place to call home.
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In the aftermath of the Joplin tragedy, the Cardinals and Royals -- along with the St. Louis Rams, St. Louis Blues, Missouri Tigers, Kansas City Chiefs and NASCAR's Kansas City Speedway -- partnered with the Joplin-area Habitat for Humanity to join the Governor's Challenge and sponsor the construction of five homes apiece in Joplin adorning previously decimated land with new homes for families who otherwise wouldn't have one. Major League Baseball contributed by constructing nine homes in conjunction with State Farm Insurance.
By the end of the week, the last of the 35 homes and the Governor's Challenge will be complete.
The Joplin Habitat normally builds about three to five homes per year, but with the help from outside partners like MLB, that number has soared to 66 homes in the two years since the tornado and will rise to 71 once the Kansas City Speedway homes are completed this week.
"Royals charities exist to help people either in their general time of need or in a very specific time of need," Royals vice president of community affairs Toby Cook said of the team's decision to step in. "It was a no-brainer."
Scott Clayton, executive director for Joplin Habitat, said the Habitat model was a perfect remedy for the need in Joplin. So many were displaced or affected by the tornado, creating a great need for homes. The Habitat model provides new homes with a zero-percent interest, 20-year mortgage to those who qualify based on need, income guidelines and sweat equity hours, which are volunteer hours served working on the Habitat homes or with other community nonprofits. Two hundred hours are required for an individual and 300 are required for a couple.
"It's a positive, life-changing opportunity for a family because so many of them are coming from FEMA temporary housing units or situations where they needed a better place to live," Clayton said. "And what they're moving into is something brand new that they worked for."
"To see the smiles that we were able to try to put on some folks' faces and just be a part of the community rebuilding was very special."
-- Cardinals vice president for community relations/executive director of Cardinals Care Michael Hall
Both the Cardinals and Royals were involved in build days last season where dozens of team staff and former and current players, from Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to Royals pitcher Danny Duffy, helped work on the homes.
The work days weren't the teams' first visits to Joplin. Both the Cardinals and Royals were in the town shortly after the disaster as they kicked off fundraising efforts at home.
Michael Hall, Cardinals vice president for community relations and the executive director of Cardinals Care, said he was astounded at the initial devastation.
"I had never seen anything like it," Hall said. "I stood and spun in a complete circle, and there was just absolutely nothing."
But he was even more surprised at how quickly the town had rebounded when he returned for the second visit.
"To see the smiles that we were able to try to put on some folks' faces and just be a part of the community rebuilding was very special," Hall said.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the teams and the league, the Governor's Challenge and visits to Joplin, the Cardinals and Royals wore patches on their jerseys that read "Two teams united for Joplin" during a series in St. Louis the following weekend.
United for Joplin
The Royals, Cardinals and MLB were active in lending time and effort to helping Joplin rebuild.
Royals charities contributed $25,000 to Heart to Heart relief effort in Joplin
The Cardinals, in conjunction with the Springfield Cardinals, donated $25,000 to Convoy of Hope, a Missouri disaster relief agency
Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association contributed $200,000 toward relief efforts for tornado victims in the Midwest and Southeast
Royals fans donated more than $18,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund during the Angels-Royals series on May 31-June 1, 2011
David Freese, Kyle McClellan and Adam Wainwright joined a group of team officials to tour the destruction zone and visit with families and relief workers in Joplin
Partnered with State Farm Insurance and Habitat for Humanity to sponsor the construction of nine homes, five in Joplin, four in Tuscaloosa
A contingent of Royals current players, former stars and staff made a Goodwill trip to Joplin on June 6, 2011, to visit with tornado victims and relief effort volunteers
Donated the $200,000 raised during "Teams Unite for Joplin" to four charities to help the children of Joplin
Two of the Habitat for Humanity homes were framed in the parking lot at Kauffman Stadium before the 2012 All-Star Game
Hosted a supply drop-off at Kauffman Stadium from May 26-27, 2011, filling two trucks with hygiene care kits to send to the victims of the tornado
Launched an online auction with Cardinals game-used and autographed items with proceeds going to relief efforts
Collected donations during the 2012 All-Star Game with Holiday Inn Hotels matching up to $30,000 to guarantee a minimum donation of $60,000 to support Habitat for Humanity's disaster response work
In addition, the Cardinals and Royals came together in the June 2011 I-70 Series for fundraisers, auctions featuring game-used items, awareness efforts and special tributes, all dedicated to Joplin relief.
"They may be Cardinals fans, they may be Houston Astros fans, they may be Dodgers fans, but we know in a small part, that we were able to get them back to normalcy," Cook said. "That was very special for us."
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Sharon Brumley moved to Duquesne, a neighboring town of Joplin, from Vermont 13 days before the tornado struck her new hometown.
The sirens had sounded on May 22, but had just stopped and she was headed to work as a rescue technician at a local hospital when she felt a pressure building in her ears, as if she were being forced too far below water.
"I knew something wasn't right, but before I could even turn, the tornado was right there," she said. "You could hear a whistle, almost like a train, and it was right there."
Brumley, her three children and the rest of her family in Joplin survived, but her home and the U-Haul sitting in the driveway that held most of her belongings were destroyed. Aside from one other neighbor, she and her family were the only ones in the immediate area to survive.
"It leveled us completely," she said. "It took everything. We didn't know where to go."
After two years of poor living conditions -- she lived in a two-bedroom home with seven other family members and a tiny one-bedroom apartment with her mother, among others -- Brumley has a home to call her own in the Cardinals' neighborhood. A four-bedroom, two-bath one-story home with a large, red Cardinals flag proudly displayed on the porch, just like most of the homes sponsored by the seven sports teams -- except this week, most of the flags are in due to a stormy forecast.
"It's been a blessing," she said. "We were Cardinals fans before they started building our home, but after they built our home, even more so now …
"I would have never had an opportunity to buy a home for a long time. It would have been years. I work, but there's no way. There's just no way."
David Masteller, Erika Garrison and their two young children moved into the Royals' neighborhood last month on Picher Avenue, a street selected for all five homes by Clayton, a die-hard Royals fan, because his team needed some pitching help.
The couple's home remained mostly intact but moved off the foundation and was deemed unsafe, which had them living in a FEMA trailer park, with other family and in a motel over the last two years.
Like many of homes in the neighborhood, they have a storm shelter built in their backyard with space for about six to eight people and packed with food, water, flashlights, candles and their family photos, which Garrison removed from the walls when the forecast showed severe storms and conditions suitable for a tornado this week.
"We know we're blessed," Masteller said. "This is our house. We can paint our walls. If something breaks, I get to fix it."
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Melinda Blankenship, who now lives in the Royals' neighborhood with her 17-year-old daughter, was in Pittsburgh visiting family when the tornado struck her hometown. Her home and family members survived, but many people she knew did not.
She had lived in Joplin since 1990, but when she returned, the town was almost foreign to her.
"You can choose: Are you going to be a victim? Or are you going to be a victor and let it make you better? There were hundreds of thousands of people, of hours, of dollars that poured into this community. By the grace of God, everything just came together."
-- Joplin resident Melinda Blankenship
"It looked like some sort of landfill," Blankenship said. "It was just amazing in an awful, horrific sort of way."
She remembers driving down 20th Street, one of the main streets the storm ripped through, and seeing a sign that read: Shelter and hot meals for volunteers and victims. The word "victims" was crossed out and "victors" was written above it, a message that she believes exemplifies Joplin's resiliency.
"You can choose: Are you going to be a victim? Or are you going to be a victor and let it make you better?" she said. "There were hundreds of thousands of people, of hours, of dollars that poured into this community. By the grace of God, everything just came together."
Brumley contemplated returning to Vermont, where she was offered her old job back, but chose to rebuild her life along with her town. She never thought she'd live in Joplin forever, but with a brand new home and a rapidly rebuilding community, she's content to stay.
Neighborhoods have sprouted along the tornado's path, old businesses have returned. Construction has begun on a new high school and dozens more homes. The town is beginning to resemble its former self.
"There's parts where you couldn't tell -- there's so much new -- that a tornado came and did what it did," Clayton said. "There's still a lot of need when it comes to empty lots and trees that need to be planted and all those things, but how far we've come is truly a reflection of God's love planted in the hearts of people here and from around the country."
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Tornado sirens howled in Joplin on Monday evening, triggering unwanted memories of a day no one has forgotten. Local newscasters urged people to seek shelter and to remain indoors -- not that the people of Joplin needed to be told.
As time goes on, the physical signs of the tornado will continue to fade, but for the people who lived it, anxiety lingers every time the weather takes a turn for the worse.
"It's like that now," said Tay Love, a resident of the Cardinals' neighborhood. "People used to take that siren for granted. … But after May 22, 2011, everybody is taking it a lot more serious now."
Love had just walked in the door from work Monday and was instantly glued to the TV broadcasts showing an eerily familiar sight in Oklahoma.
"It was something that you wouldn't want anybody to experience," Love said. "You have to really be in person to see the damage and how devastating everything was."
When the forecast calls for storms, the town is noticeably on edge. Small talk in Joplin turns to safety talk. Strangers check on other strangers -- do you have a place to go? Is your shelter stocked? Do you have food, water, blankets?
As Masteller and Garrison sat in their living room Tuesday afternoon, a siren broke through the humid air.
"Is it Monday?" Masteller asked, alarmed, as the sirens are tested on the first Monday of every month in Missouri.
It was just the sirens of an emergency vehicle driving down the street, but it got their blood boiling anyway.
"We've always got nerves going," Garrison said.
With the two-year anniversary on Wednesday, the people of Joplin aren't focusing on the tornado. They're focusing on the last two years where they've seen countless people offer aid and support, which is something the community is preparing to do for those affected in the most recent tornado tragedy in Oklahoma.
The hope is that they can help those people rebound as quickly as Joplin did.
"We're going to try to do what we can for them," said Tricia Brock, one of the Cardinals homeowners. "Looking at the TV, it's like looking at us two years ago, almost to the day."
Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.