Late in the afternoon on May 22, the people of Joplin, Missouri, were going about their usual Sunday routines. Some were shopping at the local market, others were at work, and Mark Kinsley was enjoying a leisurely afternoon working in his yard. Three hours later, Mark and his family were under a mattress trying to protect themselves from one of the deadliest tornadoes in American history.
When it was over, 160 people were dead and the most populated part of town was decimated. Every window was blown out of the hospital, the high school was destroyed and people were buried under the crushing weight of the rubble.
It’s been three months since the storm and the city is on the road to recovery. Former radio newsman Mark Kinsely is part of Rebuild Joplin and spoke to TakePart about how a nation came together to help his hometown.
TakePart: Take us back to that Sunday in May.
Mark: I’ve been in broadcast journalism for a number of years and when we made it past the second week in May, I thought we were going to make it through tornado season without a major tornado. That was not the case...The tornado touched down and hit St. John’s hospital, then it stayed on the ground for about 13 miles and destroyed the most populated part of town. The path of the tornado was about three quarters of a mile wide and it eventually ended up killing 160 people. The damage is almost inconceivable. When you go to the path where it hit, it’s very disorienting.
After that, we as a community immediately went into rescue mode. Emergency responders from communities that rely on Joplin as a hub came to town to locate people. That was our primary goal for many days after the tornado hit. Once we located everybody, then we started making sure that needs were met and then we started cleaning up. Just one landfill across the state line took 16,000 dump truck loads of debris of people's lives.
TakePart: In a disaster of this size, you need the help of more than just trained responders. How did the community as a whole respond?
Mark: As far as people who have stepped in to help, you can’t count the number of stories, the number of people who have sacrificed hours, days and weeks of their lives just to reach out to their neighbors… People came from all over the country to help out. We have a man here who came all the way from Japan. He was overwhelmed with the kindness of strangers from America during the tsunami and wanted to repay the kindness. He flew to Joplin on his own dime and put himself up in a hotel and had to ride his 10-speed bicycle to the volunteer center every day for two weeks. Trust me, it was not easy to get around by car or foot let alone by bike. He had many flat tires along the way.
The scar where it hit is virtually clear of debris and is an amazing testament to people with the 'roll up your sleeves and let’s go to work' mentality.
TakePart: I’m sure there are plenty of people who would like to help, but can’t afford to fly to Joplin to pitch in. It is worth sending in a small donation?
Mark: I got a check from an older man and woman from Oak Grove, California, and it was for $10 dollars. I believe they sent that check because they know that $10, times many people, is going to add up to a lot of help for Joplin. I took a picture of that check as a reminder that even small donations and small acts of kindness are going to add up.
There are little girls in neighboring towns with lemonade stands and I saw that time and time again. Every time one of those girls sets up a stand and sends that little bit of money, it’s having an impact.
TakePart: Tell us about your organization, Rebuild Joplin.
Mark: Rebuild Joplin is an initiative of Bright Futures, and we connect needs with resources. [Before the tornado hit] we had some tough graduation rates that we wanted to get up. So we formed “Connections for Success,” where we brought the faith-based community together with the business communities, schools, social services and over a thousand volunteers. We put together this program where we met kids’ needs, because if their needs weren’t met, they couldn’t concentrate and do a good job in school.
That connectiveness has translated past the tornado and that’s what Rebuild Joplin is, it’s taking that model of not creating anything new but connecting needs and resources on a bigger scale. The fact that those dynamics were in place ahead of time has translated well behind the destruction and that’s a key component to why we’re doing so well… I’m happy to say we met our deadline. We are functional again. People have found a place to temporarily call home. The scar where it hit is virtually clear of debris and is an amazing testament to people with the 'roll up your sleeves and let’s go to work' mentality.
TakePart: One of your big deadlines was getting the kids back to school on time. Not an easy task.
Mark: Joplin’s school system has 20 buildings and nine of them were completely destroyed or severely damaged. The fact that they started school on time is nothing short of a miracle and the school system has been kind of a rallying cry for the community. It gave us something positive to focus on and something tangible to reach for.
TakePart: Even with all the progress you’ve made, will Joplin ever be the city it was before the tornado?
Mark: I think we take this as an opportunity to be better than we were before. I’m not just saying that to make Joplin sound great. I think the people here are amazing. I don’t think we’re ever going to be the same, but we’re going to be better.
We have a shared vision for what we want it to be and the fact that we now have a blank canvas is a set back in a lot of ways, but it’s a chance to paint a beautiful picture. And we’re going to. I really believe it’s going to be a masterpiece. I want the people who came here to volunteer to put on their calendar to come back in five years and when they come back, they’re going to be proud of those gloves they put on and wore holes in. We want to repay them by showing the world we’re going to be better than before, a place the entire world can be proud of.
Through the process of storytelling, a group of women in 'The Help' (from DreamWorks Pictures and Participant Media) become empowered and, in turn, inspire and empower others. Drawing inspiration from the film, TakePart brings you “Real Stories, Real Change,” an original series featuring inspiring people across the country who are making a positive impact in their communities.