Joplin Tornado : Stronger Together

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JOPLIN Mo. — In May of 2011, Mike Woolston was Joplin’s mayor. His focus had been the recent addition of American Eagle flights at the Joplin Regional Airport and the renewal of the city’s parks and stormwater sales tax. But that all changed on the 22nd of the month. Here are his thoughts on what would happen next.

1-WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW THAT SOMETHING BAD HAD HAPPENED ON 5-22-2011?
Mike Woolston: I had recently purchased another house and was there working on it. The electricity went off during some severe weather so I waited a time for it to come back on. After several minutes, it had not come back on so I left. While in the car, the radio was talking about damage to Joplin High School so I decided to go there to try to get a look at the building. When I reached 15th and Connecticut, traffic was tied up, power poles were down and while waiting to get through the intersection, I got a call from city hall telling me I needed to get there right away.

2-AT WHAT POINT DID YOU INTERACT WITH CITY LEADERS ABOUT RESPONDING TO TORNADO DAMAGE, AND IN WHAT WAY?
Mike Woolston: I arrived at city hall at probably 6:30ish. I don’t recall exactly but I was likely briefed on what we knew so far about what had happened, rescue efforts already initiated and that we (the city) were in the process of gathering information about the damage to all affected parts of the city.

3-WAS THIS SOMETHING YOU HAD EVER CONSIDERED PREVIOUSLY, I.E. A SIGNIFICANT DISASTER AFFECTING JOPLIN AND THE ROLE YOU WOULD PLAY IN THE RESPONSE?
Mike Woolston: Consideration of events like this may happen on a state or federal level but I doubt that it is even remotely considered as a possibility by candidates pursuing elected office on a local level. It was certainly not something that I ever envisioned might happen during my term as mayor.

4-HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE YOUR ROLE IN THE RECOVERY EFFORT?
Mike Woolston: I think my proper role was as a spokesman for the city council relative to policy issues/decisions. Initially of course, the proper role is to reassure a frightened public that things were under control (and they actually were), that rescue efforts were under way and that we would be okay going forward. I suspect that many did not realize (as some council members did not) that most of the decisions to be made were operational decisions (as opposed to policy decisions) and were within the purview of the city manager.

5-HAVE YOU EVER INTERACTED WITH OTHER TOWNS, STATES, OR PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS ABOUT WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM THE EXPERIENCE? WHAT DID YOU TELL THEM?
Mike Woolston: Joplin was visited by the mayor and others from Tuscaloosa AL. Tuscaloosa had experienced a tornado approximately one month before our event and their visit allowed us to compare notes about our respective events and problems. I also participated with the mayor of Greensburg KS (where roughly 95% of their city was destroyed) in a forum for the Red Cross held in Kansas City. It was more of a question and answer format emceed by Al Roker. Generally, I answered questions about what we did in Joplin and the results we got from our actions, either good or bad, and given our experience and the results, what we might do differently IF there was a next time.

6-WHAT IS YOUR MOST DISTINCT MEMORY SERVING AS MAYOR DURING THE FIRST FEW DAYS/WEEKS OF THE RECOVERY?
Mike Woolston: My most distinct memory during the first few days/weeks/months after the tornado is a combination of occurrences. As I was in various locations (restaurants, lumber yard, grocery store, etc.) I was approached by residents inquiring about our then current status. I would answer their questions as best I could and upon their departure, almost invariably, they would speak the most powerful words that have ever been spoken to me, they said “We are praying for you.” I don’t think I have ever heard anything, before or since, that moved me so deeply.

7-WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WERE BEST PREPARED FOR, AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THE EXPERIENCE?
Mike Woolston: I seriously doubt, as a small town elected official, that you can ever be “prepared” for something like an EF-5 tornado destroying one third of your community. Most communities of any size probably have a disaster management plan but when the unimaginable happens, unless you have that plan memorized, you won’t have time to consult it. Things are happening so fast, on multiple fronts, that you’re forced into making decisions based on logic and common sense and then you hope and pray that your decision was the right one. In our case, I think that happened most of the time and when we saw that a decision made was not having the outcome we hoped for, we were quick to alter that decision in hopes of achieving the desired outcome. I give a great deal of credit for that to then City Manager Mark Rohr who, as I said, was responsible for the operational decisions that most affected the city. Apparently, FEMA agreed with me in that we feel they re-wrote their disaster procedures manual based on what they saw done in Joplin. I’d say that’s a pretty good indicator of success!

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