It’s been four years, and tears still come to both of our eyes as memories flood back of the EF-5 tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri. Checking my family in at a Dallas hotel is Dennis, a college kid working the desk. After he learns where we're from, the conversation becomes something other than the usual exchange between hotel clerk and guest.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ben Leavens
Dr. Ben Leavens and his wife, Becky, own and operate Main Street Pet Care in Joplin, Missouri.
Dennis blinks the tears away and continues talking.
"My dad is a plumbing contractor, and he had landed a job in Kansas City. So he took me and my brother to go and help work the job. We were in a van and had a trailer load of tools."
"So you were on break from school already?" I ask.
"Yeah, it was a good chance to make some extra money helping him out. We were just going to pass through Joplin. But how can you keep going when you see destruction like that? We knew people would need help."
"So you just stopped there? What about the job?" I wonder, more tears welling.
"Well, we couldn't turn our backs, so the job would just have to wait. We only stayed a week, sleeping in our van and felt guilt about leaving then," he explains. "We just started working at the first place we came to that night. If people needed help, we just helped them. Just did whatever needed to be done, you know. Clearing trees, protecting valuables, clearing debris, helping people dig out of the wreckage ..."
"Well, you know what it was like, then." I had worked all night in an area close to where he had started helping. "No one understands unless they have seen it."
"Yeah, like an atom bomb."
"Nagasaki,” he adds.
"Well, in case you didn't know it, you kind of made a huge difference in our lives."
We both tear up again.
"I can't imagine how we would have made it through without the support of total strangers,” I tell him. “We still call it ‘The Day Love Came to Joplin.’ "
Neither of us can talk about it anymore without crying, so we finish checking in. I thank him again. My wife, Becky, and our kids had gone back to the car to get our luggage. As we head up to our rooms, I fill them in on why we talked so long.
As far as I was concerned, I had just met a hero.
When disaster strikes and everything is destroyed, it is hard at first to know how to respond. It struck Joplin hard that Sunday evening in late May 2011. Within 30 minutes, 161 people had died and hundreds were injured. Four thousand homes were destroyed and nearly as many were badly damaged. The tornado wiped out a major medical center, 10 of 20 public school buildings and entire neighborhoods, displacing 9,200 residents and impacting another 17,000 people. More than 550 businesses were destroyed and 5,000 jobs were impacted.
At first, facing this widespread destruction and the thousands of tragedies before your eyes is overwhelming. The only way to begin to function on a personal level and come out of the shock is to start to break it down mentally. My first terribly panicked moments were about the feared loss of my daughters. Once they were located, my focus panned to the rest of my family, staff and friends, then to the animals in my care, the neighborhood, city and total disaster management.
The practice, our livelihood, was a top priority. Inside our main clinic, 34 objects ranging in size from a half-inch to 5 inches had penetrated the flat roof, many hitting hard enough to leave gouges in the floor — impressive considering our roof underlayment is rough cut 1-inch lap boards from the late 1800s. On one outside wall, there were stems of straw driven deep into bricks.
The roofs were blown off our other three buildings. A mile away, a neighboring veterinary clinic also lost its roofs, windows and some walls. Torrential rains soaked everything in both practices. Some of our equipment — computers, servers, radiograph equipment, furniture, copy machines and books — were protected by staff members who crawled out of their homes and covered some things with trash bags.
In addition to causing $500,000 damage to the clinic, the tornado took our home and caused catastrophic damage to our farm and rental property. Our vehicles were intact, so we had mobility. With 27 staff members to support, and knowing that inactivity could easily lead to depression, we dove in to recovery and tried to never look back.
We had enough money in the bank to cover a month or two of payroll and expenses. By day two, insurance company adjusters were set up in town. Without even looking at our properties, they handed me a check for $10,000 "to get started." The representatives on the phone said, "Don’t worry, we will cover your payroll and all income lost for up to a year," and they did. And they covered all the damage to the clinic and our other properties. They also covered a large generator to power our freezers and some other critical needs at the clinic.
Our clinic was closed due to all the damage and no power or water, yet we had four veterinarians and a full staff wanting to work. When the fire chief called on day two and asked if we could cover medical care for the search-and-rescue canines, our veterinarians and staff rose to the occasion. We set up a field hospital at Canine Command that we staffed 24/7 for two weeks. Once we were into the recovery phase, we worked from dawn until dusk. Our work included daily veterinary inspection of the large emergency shelters set up by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and volunteers from all over the world.
We kept staff members at the clinic for a few hours each day to assist with prescription refills, urgent care, and other needs of our clients. Some staff were lent to local clinics that were overwhelmed by our patients. We had no way initially to keep accurate records, and we did not charge for any services or supplies dispensed in the first six weeks after the disaster. President Obama and our governor quickly signed emergency bills easing requirements on medical-record keeping while encouraging us to just do our best.
Our suppliers, food vendors and drug representatives were amazing, going above and beyond to provide us with supplies throughout our personal recovery period. With support from the Veterinary Information Network, an online professional community and parent of the VIN News Service, we were able to converse with colleagues such as Dr. Melissa Nixon, an expert in caring for search-and-rescue animals, as well as a veterinarian who served in Iraq whose name I can't recall. Their information was critical to making us shine during this time.
Meanwhile, clinic repairs started, and we reopened our main facility in early July.
I will never again complain about insurance bills. It was amazing, and they covered everything. To be fair, a lot of their efficiency was made possible by how quickly I was able to gather information. We had had three major claims from recent natural disasters, and we were pretty adept at meeting their needs so they could help us.
Beyond the recovery of the clinic was the recovery of the community. For a community, the first three phases of disaster recovery are search-and-rescue and recovery, debris removal and demolition. We were done with the first phase in a couple of weeks; the last human survivor was pulled from the debris within the first 72 hours, and the last of some very thirsty cats were recovered within three weeks.
The last body part, a thumb, was recovered about the same time. While we had some professional help, almost all of the search-and-rescue work was done by volunteer teams. Three hundred million cubic yards of debris — 50 percent more than what was recovered post 9/11 — were removed in record time. This amazing job was done almost entirely by volunteers and residents.
Demolition sounds like debris removal, but it is not. It is the removal of the remaining structures. Insurance covers this, but many people were unwise in the use of insurance proceeds or simply lacked insurance. Through a monumental effort of more than 180,000 volunteers and coordination by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the demolition of visual reminders of the tornado is just about complete.
The rebuilding of Joplin, which is ongoing, is in final stages. Here's where we are so far:
- 1,400 rental units have been built and 6,500 residential building permits have been issued.
- Only 580 temporary housing units were ever needed; friends and relatives took in the rest of the 17,000 people impacted. Those temporary units now are long gone.
- 446 of 553 businesses are back in business, and more than 90 percent of the 5,000 lost jobs have been restored.
- An $800-million medical center opened this spring on a new site.
- Four new school complexes replace all of the destroyed school buildings.
- Sales tax revenue is up 14 percent (mostly from rebuilding).
- Replacing government-subsidized housing is in high gear.
Today, both Joplin veterinary clinics impacted by the tornado — ours and the Parkview Animal Hospital — are functioning well and will be better off. Insurance replaced all affected equipment, and both clinics ended up with major physical plant upgrades and improvements.
In addition, Parkview now has a WalMart Neighborhood Market in its backyard, which increases their exposure, and Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences' new medical school is going in almost across the street. It will be the first new medical school in Missouri in 44 years.
Our clinic, Main Street Pet Care, has almost completed an expansion into one of the highest traffic intersections in town, due in no small part to the tornado making the land available. A restaurant was unable to recover from the economic damage, and we were able to secure the property.
Most important to me and my family during and after the tornado was our faith in God, our church family who gave us a place to live, and friends who helped us in so many way, including VIN and its co-founder, Dr. Paul Pion. It is impossible to ever give them enough thanks. We also received critical help from the ASPCA and Humane Society of Missouri, Joplin's responsive city leadership, insurance adjusters, and the sea of volunteers.
From day one, they inspired us and helped keep us strong. The tears in my eyes as I write this are a testament to their love.
About the author: Dr. Ben Leavens earned his DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1992, and also is a registered respiratory therapist with a degree from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. He practiced for several years in a level-one trauma center before becoming a veterinarian. He and his wife, Becky, own and operate Main Street Pet Care in Joplin, Missouri. The two are leaders at Christ's Community UMC, one of the largest and fastest growing Methodist churches in the state. Leavens and the two youngest of his six children are (re)learning to ride trials motorcycles. They have roughly six dogs, one cat, a calf and a bunch of chickens. During the past decade, the family has lived and prospered through seven declared disasters. Leavens is a volunteer member of Newton County Rescue and Recovery.