After Joplin: Rebuilding after a tornado, branch by branch | WBEZ
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Rebuilding after a tornado, branch by branch

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Joplin, Missouri after the 2011 tornado that killed 162 people. (WBEZ/Blair Fethers)

Having grown up in Tornado Alley, my husband and I both learned from a young age what to do when the tornado sirens go off. But no drill, no practice prepares you for the devastation a tornado can bring.

It was two years ago today that Joplin, Missouri experienced the deadliest tornado to hit the United States since 1947. Though we had seen images on TV and spoken on the phone with family and friends, seeing the destruction in person was surreal. It looked like a bomb had been dropped in the middle of this quiet Midwestern community. 

And for me, one of the most scarring sights was the massive loss of trees. 

It has been estimated that recovery in Joplin will cost $1-$3 billion. (WBEZ/Blair Fethers)

Growing up on the prairie you have a special appreciation for trees.  They are landmarks.  They carry history.  They offer crucial shade on hot summer days and protect the environment from soil and wind erosion. These seemingly broken, bark-stripped and uprooted trees had been a part of people’s lives for generations, always around. Their loss caused psychological and emotional damage, forever changing the landscape of Joplin and the hearts of its residents.

I thought of my husband.  Of his childhood in Joplin.  Of how dramatically this place had been changed in an instant.  Of what my sons would never see.

It was now clearer to me than ever before: money couldn't fix this. Money couldn't bring back these ancient trees. But new trees could be replanted.  We could help with the rebuilding and support those who were committed to bringing back the community they once knew, including the trees.

So within days, we set up a fund, thanks to the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation. 

It’s estimated over 1,000 new trees have now been planted. Many of these were distributed to families to replant in their own yards because a local naturalist group thought it necessary to focus on neighborhoods.

Recently, a Joplin native sent a grateful note. He said that the new trees this summer would mean Joplin children would again hear the cicadas. Have a safe base playing tag.  That families, schools, and communities centers in the devastated areas enjoyed a sense of community pride from their efforts to bring back the peaceful landscape they so tragically lost.

On our most recent visit, we saw a community that continues to heal. It will take a long time for the horizon to look as it once did, but progress continues.  As I watched my sons run and play I got a glimpse of what recovery will bring.  Trees are something we share. And I will enjoy watching these new trees grow, knowing someday they will again provide shade.  


Breeze Richardson is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at WBEZ, overseeing the station’s community engagement initiatives. Her husband is a native of Joplin and just days after the tornado the family traveled there. The Tree Planting Fund was established thanks to the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation and planting was overseen by the staff of the Missouri Department of Conservation.


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