Rising from the rubble


Willie Brown / The Chart

Joplin High School lies in ruins after the May 22 tornado demolished the building. Students are now attending classes in makeshift locations.

Less than an hour. That short time represents the space between the last of about 460 Joplin High School seniors crossing the stage at the 2011 graduation ceremonies and an EF-5 tornado touching down in Joplin.

This graduating class will have their special day marked as one of tragedy. Their celebration coincided with quite possibly the most devastating event in Joplin’s history.

Freshman dental hygiene major Kimberly Campbell was one of those graduates, and she had just left the ceremony as the storm hit.

“You could see the rotation in the sky, but we were already in different cars headed back to my house,” she said.

Her family was ready to celebrate, going home for a graduation party. They knew the storm was strong, but they learned just how strong when radio reports came in.

“We heard over the radio that the tornado had touched at Range Line and 7th St., which was just right behind us,” she said. “My mom started flooring it, I was screaming. I was hysterical. It was so scary.”

Campbell and her family were lucky enough to make it home safely, and their home was unaffected.  Their lives, though, would be forever changed.

One of Campbell’s friends, Will Norton, garnered national attention with his story after the tornado.  He was missing for days until he was eventually found.

He hadn’t made it.

“It was crazy, mainly because I had just talked to him right before I graduated,” Campbell said. “It was just crazy to think about that he was gone now.”

 Dr. C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin Schools, didn’t know the impact the storm would have on his district right away, but he soon found out what he was facing.

Huff’s immediate thought was to head out into the community to help, but as he and his wife made it further into town and realized the path the storm had taken, he realized his district needed him.

“My role shifted immediately from search-and-rescue and supporting that effort to, you know, ‘I’m superintendent of schools, and I’ve got to do my part to take care of our schools, our kids, and our staff,'” he said.

He immediately started assessing the district’s facilities, both damaged and undamaged, and began the process of trying to account for the status of all his students and staff.

Admittedly, things were hectic for some time.

“You talk about disaster plans and always make sure you have your disaster plans updated, and for the most part our disaster plans really didn’t apply to a disaster of this magnitude,” Huff said.

The summer went on, though, and just like the rest of Joplin, Huff and his staff finally got a handle on things.  

All Joplin public schools started their academic year on time at makeshift locations.

Huff says the spirit of Joplin is alive and well in those schools, and he hopes this class of seniors takes the lessons learned with them as they go on in life.

“So many kids go on to college thinking, ‘Boy I can’t wait to get out of Joplin,’ that’s pretty much just the general attitude of kids as they graduate,” he said.

“But Joplin’s kind of a special place, and there’s a uniqueness here.

“Not just Joplin, but the surrounding area and the support of the surrounding communities, and the neighbor helping neighbor and stranger helping stranger through these difficult times, sends a clear message this is a great place to come back to once they receive their degree.”

That message doesn’t seem lost on Campbell, who says she will change the way she approaches certain situations as she enters college.

She realizes that these things can happen, and students have to appreciate what they have while they can.

“I definitely want to get involved in a bunch of groups just to meet new people,” she said.

“As far as friends and stuff go, it did put it in perspective.  You need to cherish the people that you have and definitely be able to put yourself out there more because you never know when something crazy like this is gonna happen and what you’ll miss.”

That lesson is one undoubtedly shared with all Joplin students but specifically those in that graduating class.

Having their special day marred in such a way makes them a special class to Huff.

“That group is a special group in my mind, and certainly the bonds between that graduating class of seniors is going to be different than probably any bond between a graduating class prior to or even in the future,” Huff said.

It seems that those bonds are just one of the lessons these students will take with them as they start college.

They’re forever linked to each other, linked to their school.

And, according to their superintendent, they’re also forever linked to their community.

“That bond between our community and our kids is even deeper now, knowing the losses of some of our students. I think there’s a new level and a new sense of responsibility related to taking care of our children in Joplin, and certainly that applies to those kids who graduated too,” Huff said.