Background: I was born and raised in Joplin, MO and most of my family still resides there as they have for more than six generations. I know people who died. I know many who lost everything.
It’s been a tough week; one I’ll never forget.
Last Sunday night at 5:41 p.m. CST an F5 tornado touched down in west Joplin. It was a mile wide and now is said to have been on the ground for 12 miles, sustaining winds in excess of 200 mph.
Growing up in Joplin, tornadoes were a part of life. I’ve been under more tornado warnings than I can remember. They spiral down from the clouds; you hide where you can and hope it misses, which it usually does. So hearing about a tornado in Joplin this time of year is about the equivalent to hearing about a hot day in Phoenix. It just is what it is.
When I first heard about it, I kind of shrugged my shoulders and hoped that no one was injured. Then I saw the Weather Channel coverage. The area captured on camera (near St. John’s hospital) I knew well. My former orthodontist’s office was nearby. A friend’s father worked across the street. Nothing looked as I remembered it. This tornado was different.
I called, emailed, texted and Facebook’d family and friends. I was checking Twitter constantly. I wanted more information, but didn’t know where to go. Then it struck me that people needed a place to get and share information. So I titled a Facebook page “Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery” and launched it.
I invited 20 friends from Joplin and a few more from other parts of Missouri. I started pulling information from a Twitter feed I set up to track Joplin and tornado keywords. Others were responding with information and requests. The page grew almost instantaneously from 60 likes, to 600, then to 6000 and continued to grow at an almost exponential pace.
I watched the Facebook page as one person posted asking for someone to check in on her elderly grandfather. Someone responded, checked on him, and reported back. He was ok. I couldn’t believe what I was watching as this scenario was replayed hundreds of times. People helping people. People sharing valuable information far faster than any news source ever could. People offering prayers, words of support, and encouragement.
In the past I’ve questioned the value of social media. Like any form of communication it can be misused and abused. It can be a distraction. It can give one’s life the illusion of value. After this week, I will never challenge the power of social media.
At 10:59 p.m. I emailed my good friend Tim Rich, who serves as the Executive Director of Mid-Missouri’s Heart of Missouri United Way, the following message: “You should consider opening up a special fund for the Joplin, MO tornado disaster.”
I emailed the digital/social media staff from my companies, explained the situation, and asked for help.
I then turned my attention back to the Facebook page and continued to aggregate content through the night. At about 3 a.m., I got a message from a not-for-profit from Tuscaloosa, who had been instrumental in their tornado recovery. They offered to help with the Facebook page through the rest of the night. I thanked them for their support and tried (unsuccessfully) to get a few hours of sleep.
At 7 a.m. the next morning I got a call from Tim Rich who, without hesitation, agreed to set up a special fund that would go 100% towards Joplin tornado relief with zero overhead. To my knowledge because of Tim’s swift and decisive action, we had established the world’s first dedicated tornado relief fund for Joplin. He and his team immediately set up three ways to give: people could call the United Way office, Go online to http://uwheartmo.org/, or text JOPLIN to 864833 to make a donation. We established a lofty $500,000 goal. A tall task, but something meaningful to help those who had lost everything.
By 8 a.m. the next morning, the Facebook page had grown to 40,000 likes, with nearly 100 posts/minute. There was a free-flow of information the likes of which I’d never witnessed first-hand. Unfortunately, the downside of this exchange was the prevalence of inaccurate and contradictory information. We reached out to various government and non-profit entities to get verified information that we could pass along.
In addition to relaying verified information, we now set our sights on fundraising. By Noon on Monday, we had amassed over 50,000 likes and it continued to grow by about 2000 likes an hour. This gave us a the perfect platform to help raise awareness and dollars.
I met with a team from my office who had already rallied, formed a plan, and were ready to execute.
Monday through Thursday Night
The next four days were a blur. The Heart of Missouri United Way, KOMU TV 8 (Mid-Missouri’s NBC affiliate), and my companies banded together and pushed as hard as we could. The Facebook page grew to 170,000 likes. Volunteers answered phone calls from those looking for help and those wanting to give. We booked donations from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and South Africa. We transitioned the opening of our new building to a community event and an on-air telethon. A film crew went to Joplin to get footage. We were in contact with politicians, musicians, disaster relief experts, and Fortune 500 charitable foundations. Social media was being constantly updated and organized. We slept little and worked hard.
The results were nothing short of astonishing. By Thursday at 9 p.m. we had surpassed $1 million in funds raised. The team had executed a flawless event including an on-air prime time telethon. We had collected donations from around the world. We had provided those who needed information desperately with a mechanism to find it. We had created a music video from a song dedicated to Joplin relief efforts (The CO’s “Be OK). The Facebook page was referenced as a go-to resource by most national media outlets. We had been re-tweeted by Oprah and promoted by the Oakridge Boys. We had established relationships with three national musical groups, who were committed to benefit concerts, dedicated songs, and social media promotion. And much more was in the pipeline. It felt like we had done something to help. Elated by the outpouring of support and success of our efforts, I proudly headed back to Joplin that night to see the devastation first-hand and physically go to work rebuilding my hometown.
Friday and Saturday (In Joplin)
The next morning I went with my father to see the damage. As we drove down Maiden Lane, I was cautiously optimistic about Joplin’s future and ready to get to work. What I saw next I’ll never forget. As we crested the hill overlooking St. John’s I realized the Joplin I once knew was no more. As far as I could see there was nothing but devastation and ruin. Pile after pile of rubble. I thought I was prepared. I was not. $1 million felt meaningless, like a small drop in an ocean of need. My pride was gone, replaced with a deep sorrow from sights and smells I never hope anyone must experience. The only way I know to describe it is to stand in the middle of your neighborhood and imagine everything you see being put into a giant blender, then strewn about.
My brother joined me from Dallas and we went to work. We spent hours shoveling a mixture of wet dry wall, family photos, broken glass, and pulverized belongings. We worked to pile up broken tree limbs, bits of metal, and what remained of the houses’ structures. We worked alongside scores of volunteers, all moving together, all helping together, all sweating together.
It felt good to sweat. It felt like we were making a different kind of impact. It was real, in-your-face, and gritty. This wasn’t a sanitized version of volunteerism. A rusty nail cut my arm and my brother came about an inch away from taking an errant sledge hammer to the chest. People put their heads down and worked…hard.
At one short water break, a man from Arkansas told me he found someone’s foot the day before. I didn’t understand at first. A foot? “Yes, the kind that goes in shoes,” he said. Nothing else needed to be said.
Bottom line is that Joplin needs help. If you can volunteer, please do so. If you can give, please give. While both acts may feel inconsequential, they’re not. Small somethings add up. Joplin will need efforts big and small to come back from that fateful Sunday evening. I hope you join me in helping.
This past week was a humbling, exhausting, and gut-wrenching experience that will last me a lifetime. I have seen first-hand the frailty of life, the destruction that nature can bring, and the kindness of the human spirit that yearns to help those in need. While tired, I’m encouraged by efforts of strangers and the fortitude of those who experienced the worst of it. Joplin will survive. Joplin will rebuild. Joplin will come back and as the mayor of Joplin said, “kick ass.”
Thank you for whatever you can do to help Joplin.
PS: I could spend ten pages thanking all those who have given tirelessly, prayed often, and helped immensely over the past week. You know who you are. Instead of calling each of you out by name, I just want to offer my most sincerest and heartfelt thanks. I hope the following Irish blessing warms your heart the way you’ve warmed mine.
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.