Posted by: Libby Turner, Federal Coordinating Officer
Joplin, Mo., August 10, 2011 -- Firefighters who were first on the scene when an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011 tore a path in Joplin participated in the opening ceremony of the "I am Joplin" event, a back-to-school gathering attended by thousands of school-aged children and their parents at Missouri Southern State University.
After a community goes through a devastating disaster, like the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin in May, the road to recovery can be long and daunting. While debris is removed and homes and businesses are rebuilt, survivors often look for signs that things really can return to normal. The "I am Joplin" event held August 10 was an important event for the city of Joplin because it did just that – bringing together parents, students, educators, voluntary and faith-based organizations, the private sector and government agencies to celebrate a staple of “normalcy”: the beginning of the school year.
Many of the schools in Joplin were severely damaged or destroyed from the tornado, and 260 teachers lost their classrooms. It's taken the entire community working together to make sure schools could open on schedule. Through federal disaster assistance, countless volunteer hours, the support of local businesses, and unwavering efforts of local officials and educators, this week students in Joplin will be able to start their school year on time.
Given the physical and emotional toll the tornado took on the school district and community, that’s no small feat – and one worth celebrating.
After a summer of uncertainty about debris, schools, rebuilding, finding housing and intense heat, “I am Joplin” offered school-aged children and their families the opportunity to focus on the upcoming school year, reconnect with classmates, and have a fun, lighthearted day. Throughout the evening’s event, it was apparent that everyone involved with the recovery and rebuilding is working toward a common goal: to make Joplin whole.
Despite early morning thunderstorms, schoolchildren and their parents patiently waited to receive free school supplies and clothing donated by communities across the country and "I am Joplin" corporate sponsors. It was hard to tell who was more excited – the schoolchildren clutching their new supplies and hugging classmates or their parents who realized that Joplin and the schools would be a safer and more resilient community.
Thousands of area children and their parents converged on Missouri Southern State University's stadium for a chance to show their Joplin Eagles’ pride. Elementary children enjoyed face painting and games while older students enjoyed the water slide, freebie golf and dancing to bands at the football stadium.
As the stadium seating quickly filled and students spilled over into the football field for the evening’s events, it quickly became apparent Joplin was not crushed by the May 22 tornado but stronger because of it. “Joplin” shirts were everywhere from the “I am Joplin,” “Joplin Eagle Pride” and “Hope for Joplin” to “Joplin will not be stopped by EF-5 Tornado,” “Joplin will Rise” and “Nothing Stops Joplin – Just watch.”
C. J. Huff, superintendent of schools, was presented the iconic photograph of the Joplin High School sign, reading “Hope High School”. Immediately after the tornado struck, Huff pledged the schools would be back in session within 87 days. And with the help of FEMA and the US Army Corps of Engineers the temporary classrooms and safe rooms will be ready for school’s first day – August 17. Here's a video from June where he talks about the August 17 recovery and the teamwork involved:
Yes, there were tears and hugs of joy, as well as tears of sorrow during a video tribute to the Joplin students and staff killed by the tornado. But "I am Joplin" accomplished its goal – the whole community is ready for the school year and rebuilding the entire community. The people of Joplin serve as an inspiration to the rest of the nation – and show us what is possible when the entire community engages in their recovery.