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Joplin community still healing one year later

May 22, 2012 07:50 AM
By Eli Gieryna, USTA Missouri Valley
Crews work to begin cleaning up the city of Joplin on May 22, 2011, the date of the EF5 tornado that
ripped through the city and surrounding areas. (Photo courtesy AP)
It was one year ago – on May 22, 2011 – that an EF5 tornado blistered through Joplin, Missouri.

The timeline of the disaster was swift. At 5:41 p.m., the tornado was spotted on the southwestern outskirts of Joplin. At 5:43 p.m., residents were warned that the funnel cloud wasn’t visible, wrapped by a shield of violent, driving rain. 

By 5:49 p.m., the tornado had reached Main and 20th Street, near the heart of Joplin.

At its peak, the tornado spread nearly a mile wide and produced winds in excess of 200 miles-per-hour. The storm stayed on the ground for six miles, carving a swath through the city, block-by-block, minute-by-harrowing-minute.

By 6 p.m., fewer than 20 minutes after the tornado entered the city, the storm was gone.

In that time, 161 people were killed and more than 8,000 buildings flattened, the city left searching for a way to heal from the damage.

The tornado destroyed the high school and the tennis courts surrounding the school. The USTA gave
money to rebuild the courts, as well as other athletic facilities in the city.


Like so many other tornado survivors, what Marianella Padron remembers most is The Sound.

First came a sound, "like no other sound I had heard before."

And then, shortly after, complete and utter silence.

Padron, the USTA Missouri district president, was at home in the afternoon of May 22. She was preparing to run a few errands but decided against it when she heard the tornado sirens go off. Despite the sirens, she says she wasn’t worried until the power suddenly went out. On the top floor of her house, she began running to her basement. By the time she had descended two flights of stairs, the immense, roaring twister was on top of her house. 

"I looked out the window and it was black, like night. I couldn’t see anything."

She made it to her basement and huddled in a back corner, hearing trees whip against her house and the pops of shattered windows.

Then, after no more than a minute, there was simply silence.

"I waited a few minutes and decided to come upstairs once I was sure it was clear," she recalls. "It was still dark outside but when I opened my front door, I could see that my neighbor’s roof was gone. That’s when I really knew how bad the storm had been."

She went outside and began helping her neighbors, surveying the damage. Padron’s house was damaged, but not leveled. Beginning just four doors down, however, was a stretch of completely eradicated homes.

"That made me realize how lucky I had been."

Padron immediately set out to help the recovery effort and hasn’t stopped since. As the director of tennis at Joplin’s Millennium Tennis and Fitness Club – which was unharmed by the storm – she and her staff decided to offer clinics for kids in the days following the storm, giving them a safe place to go and find distraction while the community around them began to recover.

The passage of time has changed Padron’s perspective on the event.

"I’ve learned just to appreciate life day-by-day. I’ve always tried to help people, but it’s made me want to help more. I’ve learned how many ways people have been affected and I’m trying to help however I can."

Beyond that, she has learned to appreciate the resilience of her community and its response to the devastation left by the storm.

"The people of Joplin have been incredible," she said. "There are no words to describe how kind and thoughtful the community has been."

The USTA SmashZone mobile tour visited the campus of Missouri Southern State University in Joplin
on June 30, providing a day of free tennis games and fun for hundreds of kids in Joplin. 
One of Padron’s first acts after the storm was to call the USTA, both the Missouri Valley section and the Missouri district offices. She knew that tennis was important to the community of Joplin and wanted to use it to help in the recovery efforts.

"I just wanted to see what the USTA could do to keep tennis alive in Joplin," she said. "I wanted to tell the community that we had to move forward. Kids and families need tennis."

After just a few phone calls, the USTA sent in tennis equipment to be used by people in the community, many of whom had been left without any possessions, much less tennis gear. The gifts were made possible thanks to the generosity of racquet manufacturers who donated racquets, tennis balls and even shoes.

"There were so many kids who didn’t have anything and I think being handed a racquet gave them hope and a fighting spirit," Padron said. "I had kids tell me that they didn’t deserve to get a free racquet, but we told them it came from the USTA. It was an amazing feeling."

Sean McWilliams, head coach of the boys and girls tennis teams at Joplin High School, agrees with Padron, saying that the city’s response has made him proud to be from Joplin.

"The past year has only made me more proud of my community, school and players," he said. "They’ve been through so much and haven't complained or allowed it to be an excuse to not move forward and succeed in everything that they do." 

He continued, "Everyone continues to impress me with their determination to build an even bigger and better Joplin."

With groundbreaking for the new Joplin High School building scheduled for today, the tennis players from the school have adapted and are working to move forward. In the aftermath of the disaster, the USTA donated $100,000 to help rebuild tennis in Joplin -- $25,000 from the USTA, $25,000 from the Missouri Valley section and a $50,000 grant dedicated to rebuilding the high school’s courts.

"Joplin has a long history of being a great tennis community and we wanted to help and keep that going however we could," said Mary Buschmann, USTA Missouri Valley executive director. "We’re looking forward to seeing Joplin grow in the future and come back stronger than ever."

Cookie Estrada, the executive director of the Joplin Family YMCA, says he also was grateful for help during the city's time of need.

"At our greatest time of need, the USTA provided a sense of normalcy to the youth of Joplin, and their generosity was filled with the human spirit that benefits the entire family and community," he said.

In addition to the donations, the USTA SmashZone mobile tour made its way through Joplin in the month after the tornado, offering a chance for area children to get out and play. More than 200 children attended the free event at Missouri Southern State University and participated in games, drills and other activities.

"SmashZone helped the community tremendously," said Padron. "It was wonderful because it helped us lift our spirits and have a fun day. Many of those kids had never played tennis and it was a beautiful experience to have them exposed to the game."

The site of the tennis courts as they currently sit a year after the tornado. Groundbreaking for three
new schools in Joplin will begin on the one-year anniversary of the storm. (Photo courtesy of
Marianella Padron.)


Even a year later, there is still work to be done. There is literal work to repair buildings and structures in the city, but also work to repair the other tolls taken by the tornado.

For many, tennis has been part of the healing process. McWilliams says both the boys and girls tennis seasons have been successful and that the programs are thriving as no-cut teams; the girls tennis team had 23 players this past year, while the boys team had 33.

In March, a group of six high school players from Joplin were chosen to serve as ball-kids at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, working matches played by the best players in the world.

"The kids I have are amazing people," said McWilliams. "I have never been around kids with such perseverance and positive attitudes given such devastation in their lives and around them." 

Aiding in a return to normalcy will be the return of Joplin’s annual $10,000 USTA Men’s Pro Circuit tournament, which was moved to Tulsa last year in the wake of the damage from the tornado. Plans are underway for the event to commemorate its return to the community and Padron thinks it will have a positive impact. The event is scheduled for the week of July 16.

"Everyone is excited that we’ll be able to continue the pro tournament," said Padron. "You wish the tornado had never happened, of course. But you look for positives. And a positive thing is that many kids were introduced to tennis. They can come play now and make their days better and they are also excited to see the pros come through here and play again."

The city is showing signs of moving forward. Monday marked Joplin High School’s graduation, which ended last year just minutes before the tornado touched down near the city. President Obama spoke at this year’s graduation, telling students that the experience of the storm would shape them going forward and give them strength to overcome obstacles.

"My deepest hope for all of you is that as you begin this new chapter in your life, you will bring that spirit of Joplin to every place you travel and everything you do," Obama said. "You can serve as a reminder that we’re not meant to walk this road alone; that we’re not expected to face down adversity by ourselves. We need each other. We’re important to each other. We’re stronger together than we are on our own."

Groundbreaking is scheduled for today on three Joplin schools that will replace those destroyed in the storm. Joplin High School students have spent the last year split among two facilities; grades 9-10 at another district building and grades 11-12 at a converted space in a local shopping mall.

"It’s just a conclusion of another chapter and the beginning of a new chapter in this recovery effort," Superintendent C.J. Huff told the Joplin Globe. "It will provide the opportunity for all of us to reflect on the last year and what we’ve been able to accomplish."

While it’s often said that time heals all wounds, Joplin’s response to the tornado shows that generosity and a fighting spirit can make an even bigger difference.

With those virtues in tow, there’s little doubt that the community will not only move forward from last year’s storm, but will thrive as it rebuilds with a renewed sense of hope in the years to come.




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