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

Chapter 2
Disaster Response

One of the first decisions Mark Rohr made was to veer away from the usual practice of holding press conferences at City Hall.

Visuals were going to be important, especially since the national media had arrived in Joplin en masse. Rohr decided to direct the media to Cunningham Park, the oldest park in the city’s system, and one which had been virtually destroyed.

The first press conference was held 5:30 a.m. Monday, May 23, with Rohr, wearing a gray windbreaker and looking more like an off-duty police officer than the top administrator of a city, set up in front of a twisted sculpture of trucks and cars thrown together by the force of Mother Nature.

Rohr, just like the rest of the city staff, had not slept, but that was not evident from looking at him as the media gathered. He had spent the entire night putting his people where they needed to be to keep Joplin functioning.

The fire department was placed in charge of search and rescue. The Police Department and the National Guard, which had been deployed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, would direct traffic and maintain order, including keeping looters away from damaged property. The Public Works Department was assigned to clear the streets of debris, a daunting task.

At 5:30 a.m., Rohr, a towering figure with a military style buzz haircut and broad shoulders, stepped to the microphone. There were no suits, no ties; it was a time to pitch in and work.

Rohr spoke clearly, setting the tone for the city of Joplin, and letting people know there was no reason to worry. He was in charge.

 “The City of Joplin suffered a tragedy and our hearts go out to all affected in this disaster. At approximately 5:45 p.m. Sunday, May 22, a tornado started on the western city limits and traveled through the middle of our city. This tornado tore a destructive path starting at the 28th and Schifferdecker area and moved eastward for approximately six miles.

“The path was at least ½ mile wide and possibly larger in some areas. This tornado went through a major residential part of our city and damaged a large commercial district in the Rangeline area before it moved out of Joplin. Many homes and buildings have suffered extensive damage, with many being a total loss.

“We know many people are hurting at this time. It is a sad day in Joplin. It is with a sad heart I report that we have 89 confirmed deaths due to this tornado. The city’s priority is to take care of the victims by completing a thorough search and rescue effort in cooperation with many of the area’s emergency medical service personnel. We have continued this through the night and anticipate that this effort will be ongoing for the next few days.

“Other cities and communities have stepped forward to help Joplin during our time of distress. We have approximately over 40 agencies helping with our public safety issues, as well as infrastructure needs. Many public works crews have traveled to Joplin to provide assistance with road clearance, and major needs. There are approximately 410 personnel members involved in this effort. We have declared a local emergency and the state of emergency due to this tornado and its destruction. We have seen homes impacted, as well as schools, churches, businesses and one of our hospitals, which we are standing near that area.

“We are working closely also with our utility partners in Joplin, as well as the school district and medical organizations. All have been affected, but we are pulling together in our Emergency Operation Center to ensure that our citizens are safe and informed as we go through this tragedy. We continue to ask our residents for their patience during this time. We will recover and come back stronger than we are today.

“Thank you”

This was not something Mark Rohr ever wanted to come his way, but from his way of thinking his whole adult life had been heading in this direction.

Rohr’s first experience in city government had come nearly three decades earlier when, right out of college, he landed an internship with the city government in Blue Ash, Ohio. “I saw what the city manager did and said to myself, ‘I think I can do that.’ “

He landed his first city manager position at age 27 and had moved from towns in Ohio and Florida to Joplin in 2004. That experience, he said, prepared him for the Joplin Tornado. With less experience, he said, “I would have been overwhelmed.”

There is a manual telling people how to operate city government, Rohr said, “but there’s nothing that says, ‘You have an EF-5 tornado and a third of your town is gone, flip to page 23.”

As Rohr told a reporter from his college newspaper, “Through planning, you can make your city the kind of city you want to make it. You just don’t have to accept the way things are. You can make a difference.”

As Rohr noted in an interview with a Warren, Ohio, newspaper, the situation in Joplin could have been much worse.

''We were fortunate in the respect that it occurred on a Sunday,'' Rohr said. ''During the day, an estimated 275,000 people come into Joplin. Additionally, three schools including the high school, were destroyed. It is safe to assume that the death toll would have been significantly higher had it not been Sunday.''

And now Mark Rohr was ready to bring major change to Joplin.

Over his seven years in office, Rohr had already made some efforts to move Joplin in the direction he wanted to see it moving.  He had worked with many people, major players in the community, who agreed with what he had tried to do, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. Ideas were already forming in his mind of what the city was going to look like when the rebuilding was over.

***

With his administrative team all accounted for, C. J. Huff issued the directive that payroll would be taken care of on time on Monday, May 23, despite the obstacles standing in the way.

The decision was also made to begin checking on the status of all 1,200 staff members and each of the more than 7,700 students.

Unlike Mark Rohr, C. J. Huff did not have the need to hold a press conference at that point, but his first interview with national media, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, came Monday night.

It was a scary evening for a city that was already battered by the weather. Another tornado watch had been issued and that evening the sirens again sounded, as a tornado had been spotted.

Lightning flashed around C. J. Huff as he answered the questions from the Fox News reporter.

She asked the one question he expected, but was still unsure of how he would answer. “What are you going to do now?”

“I felt it was important to say something inspirational,” he said months after the interview, “something to rally folks around.”

He paused, then answered Van Susteren’s question. “Joplin’s a great place to live and work. We’re about to show the rest of the world what we’re made of.”

Moments after the interview, the superintendent received a text message from his father. “Saw you on Fox,” the elder Huff wrote. “We’re so proud of you. Now show them what you really can do.”

That was what C. J. Huff wanted to do, but there was one problem, he said.

“My dad seemed to think I had a plan. I can tell you right now. I did not have a plan.”

Huff returned to the command center at North Middle School. It was late and he was tired. He placed a cot in the counselor’s office and lay awake thinking of what he should do next. At 2 a.m. he sat up, went over to a desk and sat in front of the computer.

He later joked that the first thing he did was to type “Disaster Response for Dummies” on Google, but his thoughts that evening were of a far more serious nature.

“I could not get over the sights, the sounds, the experience of that day. Seven thousand, seven hundred forty-seven kids and I could only account for my children. I knew there was going to be a loss of life, lots of injuries.

“I had a little cry and I said some prayers. I prayed for guidance and wisdom.”

Huff’s thoughts turned to the reason he got into education. “What’s our purpose as a school district? Why do we exist? What can we do to help this situation?”

As he continued thinking, he could not drive the memories of children as they sifted through their tornado-ravaged homes and tried to help other people. “I thought of those kids who had lost everything.”

That, he said, was when he reached a moment of clarity, for the first time since the tornado struck.

“Our role is to do what we do best- take care of kids.”

He turned to the computer and began planning for the next morning’s meeting, the meeting at which he would set the course for the school district as it began its recovery. “I evaluated the individual strengths of my team members, then created new job descriptions based on those strengths and developed a new organizational chart” complete with assignments.

Then he scripted the agenda for the meeting.

“I was really proud of myself.”

Huff slept fitfully the rest of the morning. He was eager for the session which was scheduled to begin only a few hours later.

It turned out to be the session that changed his life and the lives of all of those who worked for the Joplin R-8 School District or attended school there forever.

 

 

 

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