Lost Photos of Joplin: Saving photos, memories, and history

Orval Howard

On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado ripped through the heart of Joplin leaving a path of destruction behind it. With 161 casualties and thousands of injuries, the day forever changed the city. What stood above the debris was the people of Joplin, ready to rebuild their community.  

It is easy to think of rebuilding as taking a hammer to a nail. Though, there is more to rebuilding a community than literally rebuilding the structure of the city. There were valuable items that citizens held dear to their hearts that were lost during the devastating tornado.   

Photos, for example, are items that were taken from the victims during the ruthless storm. Pictures can capture a moment in time. A memory that a person can look back on. The photo can spring to life and remind the person of the day. It can be a still image of a loved that has since passed. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Memories cannot be replaced but having a hard copy of the memory is special.  

An organization called National Disaster Photo Rescue, formally known as Lost Photos of Joplin, have made it their mission to recover lost photos gone during the tornado. The name change came about because the organization has branched out from Joplin and has helped communities all around the world. After the Joplin tornado, National Disaster Photo Rescue traveled to Japan after the tsunami to lend a helping hand. They have even been to California to help after wildfires scorched the state. Locally, the organization has been to Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma, among others.  

“Photographs go to the nature of who we are as people. They help us to remember our life in the past they connect us to our future and there’s emotions behind those photographs because they’re memories. They’re special times they’re difficult times but they are part of our life,” said Executive Director of National Disaster Photo Rescue, Thad Beeler.   

Here in Joplin, National Disaster Photo Rescue has saved nearly 30,000 photos found after the tornado. They receive and display the photos on Facebook in hopes that they will find their way home to their original owners. Over 1,000 photos are posted each week. Those who find photographs can drop them off at Joplin History and Mineral Museum where their processing center is located.  

“We’ve collected so many images, but what we’ve done is we didn’t just hold on to them, over 18,000, almost 19,000, to date have gone to home to over a thousand homes in Joplin alone,” said Beeler.  

An organization such as National Disaster Photo Rescue could not be possible without the volunteers that help recover the photos. It should be noted that this is not a one and done thing. After three years since the Joplin tornado, the organization only recovered half of the tens of thousand photos lost. The long-term volunteerism is nothing to be sneezed at for the reward is well worth it.  

“This is an experience as a volunteer that will stay with you for the rest of your life because you’re making a difference in a person’s life, you’re making a difference in a family’s life. You have brought it back to life for them to make the home that they lost not just a house, but a home again,” said Beeler.  

National Disaster Photo Rescue is continuing their mission to recovery, preserve and return photographs that were lost a decade ago. One only has to look on Facebook to see the impact that the organization has on the public. Joyous smiles fill the page as people are connected back with their lost photos. After a time where everything seemed uncertain, Lost Photos of Joplin have been doing their part to save photos, memories, and history.