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

Chapter 3
The Tornado Mayor

When the Joplin Tornado hit, David Wallace was attending a dinner at the annual International Conference of Shopping Centers in Dallas, Texas.

Another attendee of that conference was Chris Crossland of Crossland Construction and it was Crossland who received the telephone call that his mother’s Joplin home had been hit by the tornado.

That information stopped the casual conversation almost immediately, Wallace said. “All eyes went to the news to see what was happening in Joplin. We had that immediate reaction of somebody that was affected by the tornado, somebody that actually had family there.”

At that point, it was Crossland who was most affected by the events in Joplin, but it would not be long before Wallace, the three-term mayor of Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston, now a partner with businessman Costa Bajjali in Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, would become one of the key figures in Joplin’s tornado recovery.


As he traveled block after block one day after the tornado, Mike Woolston did not recognize his home town.

South Junior High, later South Middle School, where Woolston had spent his younger years, had been battered, while Joplin High School was no longer there. The Joplin native did not have the time or luxury to think about what was gone. The eyes of the world were looking at Joplin, Missouri, and Mike Woolston was the mayor.

As Woolston, Mark Rohr, and Mitch Randles toured the disaster area, a deep sadness fell over the mayor. “Areas that you knew for 20, 30, years were completely unrecognizable.

“The way I've described it to people in the past has been if you've ever seen any of the documentaries of World War II when the Allies were bombing Europe, that's what the level of destruction looked like. Everything just completely wiped away. Every landmark that you knew - I need to turn here to go to this place or turn there to go to that place - was gone. And streets that you knew like the back of your hand, you just didn't recognize where you were at.”

The problem was particularly acute at night, but even during the daytime, Woolston said, “areas that you have gone through thousands of times, you just don’t recognize. I have to stop and get my bearings to realize where I am at, simply because everything is just completely altered.”

The position of mayor in Joplin, Missouri, was not what you would commonly see in television or the movies. The voters had not made Mike Woolston mayor. Woolston was an elected city council member and every two years the council selected one of its own to serve in what was essentially a figurehead role. The mayor handled the media interviews and conducted the twice- monthly council meetings, and maintained his or her vote on matters that came before the council, but did not have a role in running the city’s day-to-day business. That role belonged to the city manager.

Woolston’s turn as mayor happened to come the year before the city was hit by an EF-5 tornado.

When Rohr, who had designated himself as the man who would represent the city in talking with the media, was unavailable, it was Woolston who received the call.

Two days after the tornado, Woolston had a memorable interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Cooper noted that the death toll at that point had been listed as 116. Woolston said that number sounded “about right.”

Cooper said he had heard 17 people had been removed from the carnage alive.

“That number sounds accurate,” Woolston said.

“It seems there should be more people out there alive,” Cooper said.

“We hope there are people out there alive. Certainly, we have a number of apartment buildings and complexes that are completely flat and we anticipate finding more people and hopefully, we will find them alive.”

One of the problems with the city’s initial search and rescue efforts, the mayor said, was the continuing storms that battered Joplin even after the tornado. The following night, for a long while, seemed destined to be a replay of May 22, with lightning flashing through the evening skies and tornado sirens sounding.

One of the more unforgettable moments of the national media’s tornado coverage occurred that night when Cooper’s live report for his Anderson Cooper 360 program was interrupted by the sirens. Another tornado warning had been issued for Joplin.

Though no tornadoes struck the city this time, the weather hampered the search and rescue operation. “We had to pull people back in because of the lightning and the storms,” Woolston said. “We had two people struck by lightning today. We were a little bit leery of others getting injured.”

The two men who were struck by lightning were both police officers and one of those men, Jefferson “Jeff” Taylor, 31, a Riverside, Missouri, officer, was killed.

  Woolston told Cooper that Joplin was taking care of its own. Even though numerous shelters had been set up to take care of those whose homes had been destroyed, only about a hundred were staying in those shelters.

Cooper asked Woolston what he saw in Joplin’s future.

“This is just not the type of community that will let a little F-4 tornado kick our ass.”


 Though Mark Rohr had never run into anything like the tornado in his 27 years in city government, he quickly determined what he needed to do.

The streets had to be cleaned to as great an extent as possible. Though it might take quite some time for debris to be removed from the homes and businesses that had been in the tornado’s path, the streets were something that his crews could take care of immediately.

The search and rescue efforts had to continue. As was customary during such searches after disasters, areas that had already been searched were marked with bright yellow X’s. Even those areas were to receive a second look. Rohr wanted to hold on to any chance that someone, against all odds, might be discovered alive.

The population had to be kept from leaving. It would be so easy for people who had managed to survive this storm to leave Joplin behind forever. Some were going to do so, but Rohr was determined that those numbers would be far fewer than expected.

And though he was not so indelicate as to put it in words, this was an opportunity to make Joplin the city he always felt it could be.

When he had arrived seven years earlier, fresh from a stint as city manager in Piqua, Ohio, Rohr had instantly rubbed some of the city’s residents the wrong away with an expensive project to replace street lights in the downtown area with ones that had a more Victorian gas lamp look.

Rohr’s efforts to clean up the downtown area had also run into opposition.

Rohr, working with a group of like-minded citizens, had also been working on a number of projects to improve the cultural opportunities in Joplin, including Stimulating Progress through Arts, Recreation, and Knowledge, an initiative that was more commonly known by its acronym SPARK.

As bad as the carnage was that surrounded him, Rohr was already thinking that this was the chance he needed to take Joplin in the right direction.

“The citizens of Joplin realize that it doesn’t always have to look the way it was in the past,” Rohr said. “There’s a better way. So why not use this opportunity to arrive at this point?

“I don’t subscribe to the fact that we ought to just settle for something. I don’t believe that for a moment. I think you have to do what’s realistic and practical, but I didn’t think we should just sit on our hands.”

Even while the search and rescue was continuing, Mark Rohr was already looking at building a bigger and better Joplin, the same Joplin he had envisioned seven years earlier.

He was not the only leader who within days of the tornado was determined to chart a different course.

Rohr and Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce President Rob O’Brian had a long, positive working relationship, beginning almost from the moment Rohr arrived in the city. As the school district had spent days making sure its staff and students were okay, O’Brian used the same approach with the businesses that made up the Chamber.

His staff made sure every member was called and found out what each of them was needing in those hours after the tornado.

And just like Rohr, it did not take long for O’Brian to start thinking of how the city could be rebuilt in the way that he, Rohr, and other like-minded citizens, an informal group that had been meeting and pursuing efforts to make Joplin the city of their dreams had talked about for years. That group, both O’Brian and Rohr knew, would be the group that could get Joplin through this rough patch.

When a FEMA representative told O’Brian shortly after the tornado that he would need to get citizen involvement in the rebuilding process, O’Brian knew exactly who the citizens were who would lead Joplin.

While Rohr and O’Brian were dreaming big dreams for the city of Joplin, a Joplin R-8 School District leader had dreams for the school district and planned to make them happen.

And it wasn’t C. J. Huff.




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