The agreement was signed on April 28, 2011 – a Memorandum of Understanding that established Missouri Southern State University as an approved American Red Cross Shelter.
“In our minds, we thought it might be used in the event of an earthquake on the New Madrid Fault a hundred years down the road, maybe,” says Bob Harrington, former director of the university’s Physical Plant.
Mother Nature had other plans.
Less than a month later – on Sunday, May 22 – an EF-5 tornado touched down at 5:41 p.m. near West 32nd Street and Central City Road. It would grind a deadly six-mile path through Joplin, claiming 161 lives and decimating thousands of homes and businesses before disappearing back into the sky 32 minutes later.
In the hours, days and weeks that followed, the Missouri Southern campus became a hub of activity – serving in capacities far beyond a temporary shelter for those displaced by the storm.
Ten years have passed, and some of those present at the time say there’s much to be learned from how Missouri Southern responded.
Darren Fullerton (Vice President for Academic Affairs, retired): I was at home with our younger son and we had decided we needed to go out to Academy to pick up some things. That’s when the sky turned dark and we thought, ‘Let’s ride this out.’ We started getting texts from people about the storm before we saw it on the news.
Harrington: The first call I got was at around 6:30 or 7 o’clock that evening. Cell phones were down and we didn’t have any contact with anyone. I drove up to get gas at Zora and Range Line, and that’s when the phone service came back and I got a call that we needed to coordinate our response.
In the immediate aftermath, work quickly began to convert Young Gym and other facilities in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center into a shelter for residents affected by the tornado.
Debbi Meeds (former regional CEO with the American Red Cross): I live in Mount Vernon, and I’ll never forget trying to drive into Joplin with debris all over I-44. When I got there, (Young Gym) was already open and people had started coming in. A lot of our Red Cross volunteers had been affected by the tornado, so we were calling in volunteers from Springfield and all over. The agreement had been signed just three weeks before, but there hadn’t been a chance to do shelter training for staff. But we worked as a team and worked on problem-solving together.
Fullerton: Once we knew the magnitude, I showed up at Missouri Southern. One of the things that stood out to me was seeing Richard Miller there. He was setting up cots and helping with things and I thought it was because he knew we had signed the agreement (with the Red Cross). I didn’t know until the next day that he and (his wife) Cindi had lost their house. But he was in the mindset of helping other people.
Richard Miller (Dean of Arts & Sciences, retired): We had two of our daughters with us at our house near 17th and Connecticut. The tornado took everything but the closet we were in. Cindi worked for St. John’s at the time and called her supervisor, who said not to go to the hospital. We knew (things were being set up) at the school, so we just went there. Cindi worked at the temporary hospital in Health Sciences. I helped set up cots for the Red Cross but didn’t want to take up space. I figured there were people who needed it worse than we did.
Harrington: One of the things we saw were people showing up with their dogs. Typically, the Red Cross didn’t take pets. We set up our racquetball courts as a separate shelter for people with pets. We just couldn’t see turning anyone way who walked in after losing everything and their pet was the only thing they had left. Afterward, the Red Cross adopted some of the things we did, and that was one of the primary things.
Fullerton: Another thing that stuck with me was seeing an older woman who showed up at the shelter, checked in and was issued a cot. She was coming around to others who were checking in, and even the staff and volunteers, and saying, ‘You look tired. Here’s a bottle of water.’ She was someone who had just lost everything but was showing concern for those around her.
At its highest point, the center housed 547 people. A separate shelter was established for residents of a nursing home that was destroyed. In total, the university shelter provided 3,414 overnight stays.
While the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center was the immediate staging ground for the campus’ post-tornado efforts, it was far from the only building utilized.
Having been in Pittsburg that evening to celebrate a friend’s graduation, Samantha Quackenbush knew there had been severe weather in Joplin but had no idea of the magnitude of the storm. Then a senior psychology major, she remembers stopping at a Walgreens to pick up some water and other supplies, then going back to the dorms.
Quackenbush (’12, Director of Student Conduct): The sirens weren’t going off, but there was a ringing in the air … it was an eerie feeling. I had friends who lived in the Royal Orleans Apartments (near campus) and I ran over there, and we decided to see what we could do. We made it to this side of campus and saw that people were already starting to gather in the gym. We started coordinating volunteers in Billingsly Student Center by making lists of people, getting their names, taking note of special skills and how we could contact them.
Dedicated just a year earlier, the new Health Science Building proved to be a major asset in treating patients in a community suddenly down by one hospital. Volunteer physicians, nurses and others were able to utilize the new building for patient care.
Harrington: When we built it, it was designed like a 28-bed hospital … exactly what our nursing students would find in an actual hospital. We had doctors and nurses there for triage and to take care of patients. There were also several pharmacists who set up two pharmacies in the building. It stayed in operation until late Friday afternoon when the Mercy clinic opened up again.
In the coming days and weeks, there were few areas of campus not being used to assist in relief efforts:
- The Criminal Justice Building served as a distribution center for emergency food stamps, and also offered temporary housing to the Missouri Highway Patrol.
- A free daycare center was opened in the Taylor Education Building.
- AmeriCorps registered thousands of volunteers from Billingsly Student Center. Also housed in BSC were missing persons/volunteer/donation hotlines, overnight lodging for the National Guard in the gymnasium, and offices for missing persons and victim identification.
- FEMA offered disaster recovery information/registration in Taylor Performing Arts Center.
- Auditoriums and classrooms around campus were utilized for meetings and press conferences by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, the National Guard, AmeriCorps and others.
- Sodexo, then the campus food service provider, prepared 3,000 meals per day in the first four days after the tornado.
- A week following the tornado, Pres. Barack Obama came to campus to speak at a memorial service, with 7,000 people in attendance.
- More than 825 police, fire and rescue volunteers – representing more than 60 agencies – found lodging in the residence halls.
Quackenbush: I was still living in Stegge Hall because I was working in Student Affairs for the summer. I was relocated to East Hall … they clustered all the students together who were still living on campus so the other buildings could be used to house rotating volunteers. There were always people coming and going. I was neighbors with the governor for a time.
Harrington: It seemed like we had every alphabet organization on campus. We actually set up tents in front of the Fine Arts Building for the governor to bring in all the department heads from Jefferson City. People who had lost their driver’s license or other information could meet with these agencies and get all their stuff taken care of.
The one thing that did become an issue for us was all the deliveries of supplies and donations. We had trucks showing up loaded with stuff for the shelter. There was a lot of clothing that we had to sort, and we had so much bottled water that at one point the parking lot behind the Physical Plant was filled up with cases.
A variety of agencies came and went from campus throughout the summer of 2011, with AmeriCorps remaining almost until the start of the fall semester. In total, the organization’s volunteer staging area saw more than 45,500 people visit campus to register to assist in Joplin’s recovery.
Looking back, those who were here at the time express pride at how the campus rallied to assist Joplin in its time of need and the resources – human and otherwise – that are available should the situation require it.
Fullerton: I think the most important thing we learned is that we are an important neighbor to and an important part of the Joplin community. (Missouri Southern) is a village unto itself at any given time, with around 6,000 students and hundreds of faculty and staff. Not only did we have the physical resources to help, but the people here stepped up to help those in need. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of – the caring attitude of our faculty and staff was tremendous.
Harrington: I’ve never been more proud of our community, our university and our staff … how we responded to so much chaos on our campus at once. I never heard anyone say ‘No.’
Miller: You’ve heard the phrase ‘town and gown’ … to be honest, I think there was that perception (before the tornado). But we really were an integral part of helping to bring the community together.
Meeds: This was the first time the Red Cross had an agreement with a large university and used it. After (the tornado) we made a lot of partnerships with universities. The Joplin response is looked at as one of the best. There was so much collaboration. University staff had relationships with other non-profits and we all knew each other and had each other’s cell phone numbers. Things just fell into place. Your staff and volunteers were amazing, and everyone should be proud. It was such a great model for disaster response.
Fullerton: A lot of people (from MSSU) have moved on. It’s important to remind folks about what occurred. Missouri Southern played a big role. We should be proud of what we did, but also be ready in case we’re ever needed again.
Quackenbush: There’s one story I always tell … we had buses that were picking people up from the parking lots and taking them to volunteer to clean up and things like that. We had started to get some cell service back and the person in front of me got a text from a friend who had been through a tornado a few years before. They were trying to be reassuring and saying things like, ‘Life will feel normal again.’ I remember being so off-put by that person. They had no idea what it looked like here, or what we had lost. Now I grin to myself every time I think about that … it did happen. We came back.