After the Storm
True to the forecast, 70 miles north of Joplin, Mo., it begins raining. It is cool, cloudy and blustery, feeling more like fall than spring. The combination creates an almost ominous feeling, a harkening back to what it must have felt like two years earlier, on May 22, 2011, when a similar cluster of clouds and rain spawned an EF-5 tornado that ripped a hole through the heart of the small, southwestern Missouri city.
The National Weather Service, however, also dutifully promises the return of sunshine and a break from showers and thunderstorms, which is a good thing because a celebration is planned. It’s a party in the park marking the two-year anniversary of the tornado, which killed 161 people, injured more than 1,100 and inflicted $2.8 billion in damage. It’s a citywide festival of perseverance and progress—proof with barbecue and frozen yogurt that the human soul can overcome even the greatest of tragedies. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is going to be there, as are Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, the CEO of the American Red Cross, a healthy collection of local officials, plus journalists representing the complete spectrum of news media.
A grim coincidence already has Napolitano in the region, about 200 miles west in Moore, Ok., where the day before a mile-wide tornado, packing winds of more than 200 miles an hour, removed a significant amount of the city from the earth’s surface. Now the national media is looking to Moore for the story and Joplin for the backstory.
Joplin has garnered a reputation as the standard bearer for disaster management and response—a reputation built by Joplin city manager and Xavier grad Mark Rohr. Two years ago, as bodies were being pulled from the rubble, the responsibility of rescue and rebuilding the city fell on Rohr.
With square-shoulders, military-style haircut and mustache, Rohr looks more like someone you’d expect to see stepping out of a cruiser after being pulled over by the state patrol. But he’s not a uniform kind of guy, wearing a soft blue zip-up shirt, blue jeans, white khaki belt and surprisingly fashion-forward white Tom’s slip-ons. Even though his current wardrobe is more J. Crew than dress blues, Rohr emanates a sense of calmness that belies the events that forever changed the city of Joplin—and him.
The Joplin city manager’s office is located on the second floor of City Hall, which is now housed in a renovated five-story department store, constructed in 1910. It was the first building in Joplin to have electric lights, and it features a Thomas Hart Benton mural above the first floor elevators valued at around $8 million.
Though it’s not often an interview topic, Rohr’s tenure as city manager has also seen the refurbishing of building facades, sidewalks cityscaped with vintage-style lampposts, flower baskets and benches, plus a gasoline powered citywide trolley system. Not bad for a town that until two years ago was probably best known as being a stop along Route 66, a temporary hideout for Bonnie and Clyde, zinc mining and the location of some unidentifiable bouncing orb known as the spooklight.
In the past two years, though, Rohr’s responsibilities have transcended the relative simplicities of trollies and lampposts. He’s become the international media’s go-to guy for disaster response.
“I was on CNBC this morning,” he says. “I didn’t really anticipate what the questions would be, but they asked me what recommendations I would make to the citizens of Moore. I thought, ‘Wow.’ I came up with something. I said, ‘Just don’t give up hope. Persevere.’ ”
The on-deck lineup cuts across a wide demographic: interviews with Real News from TheBlaze TV at 5:00 p.m., MSNBC at 5:30 p.m. and CNN’s Piers Morgan at 8:00 p.m. It’s not that Rohr has a mania for public attention. He’s just using media to get out the message of Joplin’s recovery.
In nearly every interview, Rohr recounts the storm and the recovery. Even today, as Rohr details the circumstances in an easy monotone from the officious but cozy confines of Joplin’s City Council chambers, it’s spine-tingling to imagine how everyday events and life-changing catastrophes can occur.
“The tornado formed right on the edge of the city,” he says. “Hurricanes you can see coming ahead of time, and if you have any sense you get out of the way. Tornados, especially this one, not a whole lot of advance notice at all.”
The tornado sirens sounded twice—24 minutes before and then four minutes before.
An hour before it hit, more than 400 graduates of Joplin High were walking across the stage at the Leggett and Platt Athletic Center on the Missouri Southern State University campus, about five and a half miles from the tornado’s epicenter. When the storm struck, they were on their way to Wal-Mart for graduation cakes or gathering in backyards.
The tornado ran west to east, bisecting the city just south of the center. Winds peaked at 250 mph. It was between a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile wide and stayed on the ground for 12 miles. Everything in its path was gone.
Rohr had no idea. On the edges of town, it was just another storm.
“It was Sunday night and I was getting ready to watch the Cubs play the Red Sox,” he says, “The phone rang, and I didn’t get to it in time because I was busy doing chores so I could get caught up and enjoy the game. It was our fire chief, Mitch Randles. He left a message. He said, ‘We’ve had a bad storm. You need to get into town.’ ”
The only way to feel the full impact of the storm and fully appreciate the rebuilding efforts is to see it firsthand. So Rohr stands up, walks out of the council chambers and heads to the parking lot where he slides into the passenger seat of a car and becomes a de-facto tour guide to the storm’s path through the city.
To an out-of-towner unaware of the history, it could appear Joplin is just a city in the midst of an urban renewal. But it’s not.
“We had 7,500 homes that were impacted—3,500 destroyed and 4,000 damaged,” Rohr says, reciting the numbers well-etched into his memory. “We had 540 businesses either destroyed or damaged. Today, 85 percent of the homes and 90 percent of the businesses have been rebuilt or had the permits pulled to do so.”
“I knew where the fire chief was because he had described it to me over the phone,” he says. “But because of all the downed trees and power lines, I had to run two or three blocks from where I parked the car to where he was. The first thing I saw was a green minivan with the windows blown out. There were two deceased citizens right there, five feet away from me. I realized then, this was a pretty serious thing. I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts and decided what needed to be done next, because it was my responsibility to deal with it.”
Continuing on Main Street, Rohr calmly points out various landmarks—where the Mexican restaurant used to be, where the green minivan was. “That green van sat in this parking lot for months afterward.”
As the car approaches 20th Street, a major thoroughfare through the city, Rohr instructs the driver to turn right.
“We looked ahead and saw the vocational school was completely flattened. And the high school, which was nearby, was half gone. And it just got worse the further we went.
“We went over the railroad tracks, just passing the high school, and a lady flagged us down and told us a church had collapsed, there were people trapped and they needed our help. So we went out there and saw a little bit of everything.
“We tried to help pull people out of the debris and do whatever we could. There was one lady who had lost her leg. I pulled another lady out with a broken leg, then another lady that I was told didn’t make it. I sat her down in the grass and went about helping some other people. There was an interesting story that developed about that later on.”
It doesn’t take long to discover one aspect of Rohr’s personality—he’s a compartmentalizer, with an ability to feel and think deeply. Events can be horrifying, incomprehensible. Yet, to him, still interesting and worthy of study.
It’s that interest, and the thinking, that has enabled him to create a path for a city and its citizens out of devastation, and stay on a path that’s become a model for the rest of the country.
When the nation turned its attention and television cameras to Joplin, Rohr intentionally stood in front of a twisted tower of trucks and cars smashed together by the force of the winds. The site was Cunningham Park. At the time, the spot demonstrated the extent of the destructive power the storm had delivered. Today, it stands as the symbolic city center for both progress and remembrance.
“Cunningham Park is the oldest park in the city,” he says. “It’s right there that the storm went from an EF-4 to an EF-5. It was literally wiped out.”
Rohr remembers it more from a personal perspective. “Yeah, I was wearing a torn hat that I had on when I left my house and was still wearing the next day.”
It would be nearly 30 hours before Rohr would be back in bed. And for the next 28 days, he worked an average of 16 hours a day.
Larger cities tend to have mayors who become the face of a major event—most famously New York’s Rudy Giuliani during the Twin Towers attack and New Orleans’s Ron Nagy during Hurricane Katrina. No one knows who the city manager of New York was at the time, because they didn’t have one.
A city manager is the full-time professional who works with elected officials, most of whom are part-time. In Joplin, there are nine council members and they pick their own mayor every two years, from amongst themselves. With this structure, the bulk of the burden to actually run the city and do the work rests with the city manager. It can be a daunting task, and Rohr’s skills at it haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year Governing magazine named Rohr manager of the year, calling him “The Builder.” In reality, though, Rohr is more of a planner. Or as he puts, “My sisters said I could plan the fun out of anything.”
“I may not be the funnest guy to be around all the time, but planning sure came in handy.”
You rarely hear someone say, “I want to be a city manager when I grow up.” Rohr certainly didn’t say it. He was raised on the border of Blue Ash and Evendale, two northern Cincinnati suburbs. “I went to Moeller High School and grew up right across the street from Blue Ash and saw it transform itself.”
Through planning, Blue Ash rebuilt itself from a small village into the area’s major northern business hub. It doubles its population during the day as a result of the number of offices and medical facilities, and then spends the taxes it collects on its residents, increasing property values by maintaining the streets and building luxury items such as free pools and parks.
The concept wasn’t lost on Rohr.
“I didn’t realize it until I got my master’s in public administration,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to land an internship in Blue Ash, and got to see how it all worked. I saw what the city manager did and said to myself, I think I can do that. That pointed me in the direction of trying to be a city manager. My first job as a city manager was at the ripe old age of 27.
“Lucky for me I had 24 years of experience as a city manager by the time the tornado hit. If I had been a neophyte, I would have been overwhelmed. Before the storm, there was a manual. In theory, it’s an operating guide in case of a natural disaster. 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 continues his tour through the town, he points out different pieces of history and tragedy. One thing, though, becomes apparent: The story of Joplin is just as much about what you don’t see as what you do: empty sign frames, concrete slabs and neatly mowed fields with flowers blooming in random places—bits of landscaping leftover from now vanished houses.
Then a concrete slab. “That’s where the church was. Where we pulled the people out.”
There’s a 30-foot tall iron cross at one end of a parking lot. “See the cross? That was the Catholic Church. It was destroyed. The priest was found in his bathtub under rubble. He was OK. The church was gone. The school was gone. But the cross was unscathed.”
At Cunningham Park, the car comes to a stop and Rohr gets out. It is blustery. Thick, dark clouds roll in from the west.
“These trees were stark white, because everything got scoured. The wind was 200 miles an hour, and they were debarked. The experts were telling us they’re dead. The leaves sprouting are the stored up energy, but we’ve left them. We didn’t want to go around taking trees down. Why not wait a couple of years after the newer trees have developed?”
There’s also a plaque next to the fountain with the names of the tornado’s victims. Rohr points to a name and recounts a story of bad luck, tragic twists of fate or boundless bravery.
Will Norton. “He had just graduated high school an hour before. He was going to attend film school. He was on his way home with his dad. His mother and sister made it into the garage. He gets sucked out through the sun roof, his dad is injured trying to hold him and they can’t find him for three days. Finally, they found him in a nearby pond.”
Christopher Lucas. “He was the Pizza Hut manager and strapped himself to the freezer door to protect the people inside. He’s like 27, and makes a split-second decision that saves 15 people’s lives and forfeits his own in the process. His mother will be laying a commemorative wreath at the ceremonies tomorrow.”
There’s one name not on the list. “Remember the lady I pulled out of the church that I thought was dead? She ended up living. She lost her sister and her daughter and they’re on here.”
“What I’ve learned is that a lot of cities just do what I call ‘grass and trash.’ Cut the grass, collect the trash and tomorrow’s another day. Through planning, you can make your city the kind of city you want to make it. Meaning you just don’t have to accept the way things are. You can make a difference.”
Tomorrow, when the sun is out and skies are clear, Napolitano and others will stand here, remember the tornado and praise the town for all it has done. Rohr will be seated on a chair behind the podium, happy for the attention the city is getting. Happy for the people. Happy with what Joplin is becoming after the storm.
• • •
• See a photo gallery of the tornado and the rebuilding efforts from photographer David Eulitt.
• Read a story from Esquire magazine about the tornado.
• Mark Rohr’s 10 Tenets of Disaster Recovery