Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud: Greed, Corruption, and the Joplin Tornado
Author: Randy Turner

Chapter 1
May 22, 2011

From where he stood in the shell of what only an hour earlier had been a Chinese restaurant, Mark Rohr could see evidence of the EF-5 tornado that had ripped its way through Joplin, Missouri.

As far as his eyes could see, were downed limbs, trees, the remnants of thriving businesses, empty space where once street signs had stood and power lines were strewn across the street.

Then the Joplin city manager saw the sight that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his days- a car parked beside him, its windshield blown out by the force of the storm and two men sitting in the front seat staring vacantly ahead.

Both men had breathed their last.

By the time the counting was done several days later, the May 22, 2011, Joplin Tornado had claimed 161 lives. The two in the car were just the first that Rohr would see that evening as he made his way through his city.

Rohr had parked his car a couple of blocks away and had run to the former Chinese restaurant to meet with his fire chief, Mitch Randles. Randles called the city manager earlier to let him know Joplin had been hit.

After arranging to meet with Randles, Rohr called his wife Lois, who was on her way back from Springfield where she was picking up Rohr’s 11-year-old stepson from a visit with the boy’s father.

“Lois, get off the highway,” he shouted frantically, telling her to find a building and wait until the storm was over. In addition to the stepson, the Rohrs’ two children, ages 2 and 4, were with her. After a brief conversation, he told her he had to go. “Be safe,” he said, then he pulled on his windbreaker and hopped into his SUV.

As he headed toward his meeting with Randles, there were times Rohr had no idea where he was. He had driven these streets countless times since he arrived in Joplin in 2004, but the familiar buildings and signs had been stripped away forever.

After he met with the fire chief, the two went into the heart of the tornado area and found themselves overwhelmed by the tragedy that was unfolding before them.  People whose homes had been destroyed were searching for friends and loved ones or simply wandering the streets trying to figure out what to do next.

“We saw the vocational school was gone and the high school was almost completely gone.” A lady ran toward Rohr and Randles, frantically waving her arms.

“Please help us, There are people trapped in the church!” she shouted, pointing at what remained of the Joplin Full Gospel Church. The tornado hit as the congregation was in the middle of Sunday evening services.

“I could hear the children screaming and others crying underneath the destroyed structure,” Rohr said.

As Rohr looked over at Randles, on the other side of the fire chief he saw a six or seven-year-old girl.

There was nothing that could be done for her, but hearing a cry from beneath the section of the church that was nearest to them, the men began moving bricks, wood, sheet rock, and twisted pieces of metal and within in a few moments, a grateful child, about the same age as the one whose body they had seen moments earlier, emerged, battered and bruised, but alive.

The two men continued to help people find their way out of the church wreckage, but as others arrived, there was another job that Mark Rohr and Mitch Randles had to do.

Rohr corralled a nearby Joplin police officer and told him to send the message through the communications center that all department heads were to meet immediately at the Donald E. Clark Safety Center

After that meeting, Rohr and Randles took a helicopter ride to get an idea of just how badly the city had been damaged. What they saw, with the help of night vision goggles, was beyond belief- approximately one-third of the city had been hit.

The challenge was there, unlike anything Mark Rohr had seen in his 27 years as a city manager.

Rohr was confident he would rise to that challenge.

***

When Mark Rohr first learned about the tornado he had been enjoying a Sunday afternoon off, getting ready to watch the Chicago Cubs play the Boston Red Sox on ESPN. Sunday was not a day of rest for one of the city’s other leaders, Joplin R-8 School District Superintendent C. J. Huff.

Huff, who was just completing his third year as the head of the school district, was at Missouri Southern State University, watching proudly as 450 Joplin High School seniors collected their diplomas, turned their tassels, and took the symbolic path to adulthood.

Huff, as one of the speakers, had just told the students about taking their first steps into the “darkness of the unknown.” Those words would stay with him for a long time.

The commencement ceremony began at 3 p.m. and lasted two hours. As the crowds lingered at MSSU, clouds were ominously moving across Joplin. Weather forecasters had warned of the possibility of supercells, but this was Joplin, where there had not been a tornado for years, despite the frequent sounding of tornado sirens.

As Huff exited the auditorium, he was confronted by two sounds- the ringing of his cell phone and the first sounding of the warning sirens. Huff glanced at his phone- it was his wife.

“They said they have spotted a tornado in Carl Junction,” Jennifer Huff said. “Be careful.”

“I will,” he reassured her, climbed into his school-furnished car and began the six-mile drive to his home- a drive that would take him almost directly into the path of a tornado.

The superintendent was confronted by golf ball sized hail.

“I noticed up ahead of me there was a wall of water headed my way.” He continued driving into it and finally reached his subdivision. “As I turned left, the world changed around me. A tree broke off to my right; one went down in front of me and the wind was coming from the east in excess of 100, 120 miles per hour.”

It was not the first time Huff had been around tornadoes. He spent his youth on a farm near McCune, Kansas, an area that was no stranger to twisters.

“I had to get to my wife,” he said. “She was down in the basement waiting for me.”

But as he looked at the scene in front of him, he thought, “This can’t be real. Here I am right in the middle of a tornado.” Huff continued driving, scrunching down behind the steering wheel attempting to see his way to his home. “There was so much debris in the air, I couldn’t see to drive.”

Finally, he made it to his house and pulled into the driveway. Immediately, he was confronted with another obstacle. “The garage door wouldn’t go up; the power was out.”

He opened the car door, shut it, and made a run for the house. When he entered, Huff ran down the stairwell, tripping over a vacuum cleaner his wife had left out and tumbling to the floor.

Huff called his wife’s name and she responded from the basement. In a few seconds, he joined his family.

“We rode out the storm in the basement.” The tornado missed the Huff home.

When the storm had passed, Huff prepared to go back out and see where he could help. “I thought it would be like it was on the farm,” he said, “you go out and help people clean up their yards.” What C. J. Huff discovered was far beyond anything he had ever experienced.

“I was going to have to put my superintendent hat on and go to work.”

Before that work could begin, Huff discovered for himself the horrors of what had just happened in Joplin. “I’ll never forget the sights and the smells. There were people crying, people shouting out other people’s names, looking for friends, neighbors, loved ones.”

Then Huff saw his first fatality.

“An elderly lady in the middle of the street; an emergency responder was there and she was covered with a blanket- but she was obviously gone.”

As was two-thirds of the roof at the administration building when Huff arrived. “Water was pouring in,” he said, and that was a problem since the building housed all of the school district’s records.

Once Huff assessed the damage, he discovered that the high school, Franklin Technology Center across the street, one middle school, two elementary schools, and an unoccupied building that had once housed South Middle School were damaged or destroyed. He made the decision to set up a command center at North Middle School in the heart of the city.

That first night, Huff called those who worked directly with him on a daily basis. “It took all night to round everybody up.”

He scheduled a meeting at 8 a.m. the next morning at the new command center.

And he did not have the slightest idea what he was going to do.

***

C. J. Huff’s chief lieutenant, Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer, was also at the graduation ceremony and headed home when she heard the first sirens. She and her family were safe in a concrete room as the tornado ripped through the city.

“We were fine,” she said, “but knew immediately the surrounding area wasn’t, based on the 4x8 boards in our yard. Phones weren’t working and text messages quickly became the only means of (unreliable) communication. I learned of damage about a mile from my home which would have included a school so I left home to check on its condition.

“I had no idea what I was in for.

“My journey that evening included picking up people along the way, including a school secretary with her daughter, their dog and a basket containing ‘all that was left.’ I delivered them to their destination winding around downed power lines and driving past indescribable destruction. I learned about the high school being hit and tried to get there only to arrive at our administration building where the roof was missing from the east end of the building. That was when I snapped … snapped from the daze of trying to figure out what had happened to (become) the administrator taking charge. A teacher stopped at the office as I was walking out. I sent him to his building to see if it had electricity and to open the school as a shelter. I traveled to the command center and began to participate in the community recovery operations. It was amazing to see the plans that had been developed come alive and really work although it still seemed like a nightmare!”

While C. J. Huff was not sure of what exactly he needed to be doing, Angie Besendorfer was in her element. And even in those first moments after the storm, she began thinking about the possibilities of what could be done with the Joplin R-8 School District.

 

 

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