‘This is my paper. This is my town’

One year after a devastating tornado, The Joplin Globe feels stronger

Jack Kaminsky lives with his mother now. He is 63 years old, broad shouldered, with silver hair and a silver beard. He’s the circulation director of The Joplin Globe, and he and his wife survived the tornado that blew apart their city last May 22 by diving into their basement and listening to “everything fall apart.” When the noise subsided, they pushed opened the door at the top of the stairs and saw over their heads a blue sky. At their feet lay Joplin.

Kaminsky was able to salvage an old cabinet-style wall clock from what was left of his home, and he later put it in his office. Its round dial sits above a square picture that reveals—when you get down on your knees for a good look—a faded image of a guardian angel. The dial is stopped at 5:28 p.m., the moment that the winds grew strong enough to dislodge the battery. At 5:41, according to most accounts, the twister touched down.

The EF5 tornado—the most powerful on the Fujita scale, with winds topping 200 mph—wiped out 25 to 30 percent of Joplin. It demolished 8,000 structures. The newspaper lost 1,500 subscriber homes in minutes, and at the same time, 100 advertisers. Two Walgreens were destroyed. Home Depot was destroyed. A Walmart was destroyed. Academy Sports was destroyed. Dillons, a grocery store, was destroyed. The Globe’s building took only slight damage. So did the rest of downtown. But a third of the Globe’s approximately 100 employees felt the tornado’s power. Many dug themselves out of shattered homes. Others found their vehicles crushed or flipped. Some lost friends and acquaintances. Bruce Baillie, a 53 year-old Globe page designer with a daughter in college, lost his life. He was killed while home on a vacation day.

Almost a year later, Joplin is putting itself back together. Construction is booming across the town of 50,000 people. Homes and stores are being rebuilt. There will be a new high school and a new hospital.

The Joplin Globe, too, is displaying remarkable resilience, and some might say the paper is stronger and better than ever. This is happening, of course, amid sadness. To this day, Kaminsky’s eyes spill over when he gazes at a special section of the Globe tacked to his office wall, “Faces of the Storm,” which was printed June 12, 2011 and carried photos and bios of 153 people who were killed (the death toll would eventually rise to 161). In large text in the center of the page are the words, “Psalms 46:1.” You have to look up the verse for yourself: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

“I couldn’t tell where we were”

Jeff Lehr, a 57-year-old crime reporter, has a hard time recalling what happened in the weeks and months after the tornado. His therapist believes he has post-traumatic stress disorder, which has led to memory loss—a difficult handicap for a reporter to accept. This is what he does remember: He couldn’t reach his cat, Mr. Jones, who was hiding under furniture as the winds bore down on his apartment building. He fled the second-floor through a hailstorm of glass and sheetrock, down a flight of stairs, and into a closet on the first floor. He made it just as the tornado pulled the roof off his building.

May 22, 2011 was a Sunday, and Globe editor Carol Stark was at work that afternoon to oversee the coverage of the high school’s graduation ceremony and to keep an eye on the weather. Because of the news event, the staff, as luck would have it, was a bit larger than normal. Stark watched the TV coverage of the brewing storm. She saw a broadcast of a black wall of clouds and then the screen went black. Someone suggested going to the basement, just as the newsroom’s cell phones started lighting up.

The basement of the Globe is an old bomb shelter. From the newsroom on the second floor, you take a black, spiral staircase that leads to a steel door sealing off a concrete room filled with old Globe racks and other detritus. That room leads to another full of thousands of dollars worth of newsprint. The storm sheared off a chunk of the roof, sending a cascade of water into the warehouse. “Our publisher and accountant were building little dams to keep the water away from the rolls of newsprint,” Stark says. Meanwhile, messages coming in on the staff’s phones told them the hospital was hit, the Walmart was hit, the high school was hit. “I was thinking that’s impossible,” Stark says. Those places were miles apart.

When the storm passed, Stark dispatched a sports reporter to the hospital and began to call her employees, to find out who had been hit by the storm and who could come into work. The landlines were working only intermittently, as were the cell phones. She got an incoming call from the Globe’s enterprise editor, Scott Meeker. He was home alone with his three year old and five year old. His wife was safe at work. He was coming in and he was bringing the kids.

Photographer Roger Nomer, returning to the office from the high school graduation ceremony that had been staged at the campus of nearby Missouri Southern State University, had taken refuge in a parking deck opposite an EMS station. Ambulances began tearing out off the building shortly after the winds died down—“That was my first clue something big was going on,” he says. He followed one to the main drag in town, Range Line Road. “But I couldn’t tell where we were,” Nomer says. “The buildings were completely destroyed.” Nomer contemplated dropping his camera and trying to assist victims. But with rescue workers on the scene, “I thought what I can do best is take pictures and document.” He snapped the image of police sergeant Gabe Allen carrying a girl to safety that was broadcast around the world by cable news and The Associated Press and which ran on page one at The New York Times.

At Globe headquarters, the staff had steady power and an unwavering Internet connection, but no one was sure what had happened. An early bit of evidence came from Joe Hadsall, the features editor, who sent Meeker a text saying he lost his house. He also said, “I’m on my way in.” Gradually, Meeker says, the reality of the storm, the breadth of the tornado, became clear.

Facebook became a news gathering source. Meeker implored people to share what they’d seen and to call the newsroom with eyewitness accounts. Alexandra Nicolas, the Web content producer, noticed that plenty of Joplin residents were trying to find each other. “We were flooded with questions from people on Facebook asking if loved ones were okay,” Meeker says. Nicolas came up with the idea of creating a separate Facebook page hosted by the Globe, called “Joplin Tornado Survivors” as a forum for worried residents. The page was up by 7:30 p.m. and by 10 p.m. it would have some 6,000 followers.

Jeff Lehr entered the newsroom around 7:30. When he had emerged from the closet in his home, he stood for five minutes or so, he says, “not seeing anybody out on a landscape that looked like Hiroshima.” He spent an hour trying to give aid but found most people on the streets, like him, wandering without purpose. “I did not even think about reporting in that first hour,” he says, “And I’ve been a reporter going on 30 years.” Eventually, he found a couple with a working truck—his car had been crushed—and hitched a ride to Globe headquarters. He arrived soaking wet. Stark looked at him and told him to write a first-person article: “Jeff, you lost your home. Tell me about it.” He began writing.

Reporter Wally Kennedy, whose home was spared, set out in his car to investigate the damage. “The town had been cut in half,” he says. He saw that St. John’s Hospital was damaged and drove to Freeman Hospital down the road. He started reporting, “but there was an extraordinary number of people being dropped literally off at the doorstep of Freeman.” Patients from St. John’s were being wheeled over on their gurneys. He saw residents using doors and sheets of plywood as stretchers for victims. For the next few hours, he worked as a volunteer, trying to keep the aisles open for doctors, distributing blankets. People were lying on sidewalks and on the street. The hospital’s computers were down, and so was water pressure from the thousands of broken mains. After more than three hours, he got a phone call from Stark. She needed him to get back to work.

The Globe went to press around 1 a.m.—about an hour later than usual. Kennedy wrote the first 20 inches of the lead-all story, under the banner headline “It’s Just Gone.”

“This is my town”

Nearly everyone at the paper describes the days and weeks immediately after the storm as a blur. The Globe pursued the story readers wanted most in the hours after the tornado struck: Who is dead? The coroner was overwhelmed by the number of dead and the difficulty in identifying remains. The disfiguring power of the storm meant that many people could only be identified through a DNA match of a relative. Meanwhile, residents were hysterical from the lack of knowing. Others knew their loved ones were dead but could not hold a funeral until the morgue made it official and released the remains.

Residents started calling the Globe. One woman who called was looking for a loved one whose house was destroyed by the tornado. Neighbors had told her that an ambulance had carted someone away, but the desperate woman didn’t know if the person was alive or dead, if she should continue looking or plan a funeral. “She represented a lot of people,” says Andy Ostmeyer, the metro editor. “The coroner had a hard job to do, but we had a community with real pressing needs.”

The paper began publishing its own list, based on what it could confirm from public sources and family members and witnesses. By June 12, the two lists matched and the paper printed its “Faces of the Storm” issue. “That as important as anything we’ve done,” Stark says.

Kaminsky, meanwhile, was worried about getting papers to as many houses as possible. In the aftermath, couriers struggled to get across town. Ten routes out of 116 didn’t get delivered because of the dangers of the downed lines and debris. Instead, trucks dropped off bundles at makeshift shelters and the paper distributed the Globe on local buses. To prevent looting in the damage zone, law enforcement issued a curfew, but this had the effect of blocking the newspaper’s early morning couriers. Kaminsky knew people were still living in that zone and others were coming back daily to try to salvage what they could—and to get their newspaper, which contained, among other things, the list of the dead. Kaminsky called the publisher. The publisher called the police chief. The chief relented and wrote and signed a letter that was copied for all the couriers, giving them permission to be in the zone.

Homeless staff members lived in motels, paid for by the Globe’s ownership group, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., which also sent support staff, cash, and transportation. Meanwhile, the Globe took on a strange new life as a national focal point. Gift baskets full of junk food, pens, notepads, and money arrived from newspapers and press associations across the country. The Missouri Press Association gathered about $70,000 in cash for victims of the storm who worked at the Globe. Other donors from across the country sent checks to the paper with instructions to give the money to the needy, whomever they may be. Two former reporters from The Wichita Eagle showed up and volunteered to help, as did others.

National media was on the story, of course. Anderson Cooper of CNN grilled Governor Jay Nixon about the slow release of information on national television, to the delight of some Globe staff members. A.G. Sulzberger, the scion of The New York Times Company family and the paper’s Midwest correspondent, was using the Globe newsroom, a favor Stark had granted.

But the Joplin paper, argues Stark, led the national pack by never straying from the role of community newspaper. “I have been here 30 years,” Stark says. “This is my paper; this is my town. I appreciated the national spotlight on Joplin, but we were not followers. We were leaders of the coverage in the midst of this chaos.”

Stark has examples of how the Globe made a difference. Mark Lindquist, a worker at a Joplin group home for adults with disabilities, was in a coma for nearly two months after trying to save the lives of two men who were residents there. The men died, and when Lindquist emerged from his coma he faced massive medical bills. The insurance company refused worker’s compensation by deeming the tornado an act of God. The Globe ran the story. Then it had the satisfaction of running a follow-up when the insurance company reversed course. The Associated Press followed suit and ran its own story.

The Globe got a scoop when the president of a local credit union spilled the beans on Bank of America, which was withholding insurance checks for homeowners up to 28 days. The bank changed course after the story ran. “We couldn’t make people’s pain go away,” says Ostmeyer, “but maybe we could plow a little ground to make the steps easier.”

Stark tried to give her staff members as much personal time as she could to deal with insurance claims and personal health. Lehr was one who found a therapist. He also found his cat, still crouching under furniture, amid the rubble. For weeks, Lehr purged himself of the storm, in the most literal sense imaginable, plucking pieces of blasted debris—most likely glass, powdered and propelled by the tornado—from his skull.

“A two-way street”

The Globe has received accolades for its ability to connect with and cover its community in the hours, days, and months after the tornado. That includes awards, such as the APME Sweepstakes Award for the series “22 Miracles in May,” in addition to a slew of prizes from the Missouri Press Association. Editor & Publisher awarded the Globe an Eppy Award for Best News or Event Feature on a website with less than 250,000 unique monthly visitors. The Globe’s Roger Nomer was named Missouri AP Photographer of the Year for his iconic image of the disaster, which is at the top of this story. The Missouri Press Association put together a moving documentary about the Globe’s performance. That film, Deadline in Disaster, will be shown in Joplin on May 24.

What might matter more to the people of the Globe are the markers of the newspaper business. The paper has regained revenue ground, thanks in part to a flood of advertisements from insurance companies, contractors, demolition crews, and others who provided essential services to the rebuilding efforts. Against long odds, the Globe’s circulation is nearly back, too. Sunday home delivery was around 20,000. The tornado dropped that number by a thousand. Today, it is back up to 19,750. Single sales of newspapers, meanwhile, surged in the weeks and months after the tornado. Residents propelled Sunday rack sales from an average of about 7,000 to as high as 13,000 in the month after the storm, and Sunday rack sales remained higher than average the rest of the year. Web traffic, usually between 40,000 and 50,000 page views a day, skyrocketed. Between May 22 and June 30, the site was slammed with six million page views. The numbers, of course, have declined since then, but they’re still floating above the norm. Nicolas says new readers became repeat customers.

“What this did was to revalidate our value in our community,” says publisher Mike Beatty. “We were able to identify the kind of thing they wanted to know: Where can they get shelter? Where can they get funds? Where is their help, and who died? Because we’re a community newspaper, we knew who to call and who to talk to. And people were coming to us and giving us information. It was a two-way street. It enhanced our relationship with our readers and our community.”

Meanwhile, the Globe has tried to repay some of the kindness it has seen through a fund of its own, created from a chunk of the donations it received, to help other journalists in crisis. A candidate has already appeared: Earl Kinner, the owner and publisher of The Licking Valley Courier in Kentucky, who lost his house and his office to a tornado on March 2.

Some Globe reporters will tell you they’re changed as a result of the tornado a year ago. And just about all will tell you that immediately after the storm, the connection the paper of Joplin had with the people of Joplin grew stronger. T. Rob Brown, who lost his home and car to the storm, said being a victim of the tornado gave him access to photos no one else got. “When somebody told me what happened to them, I let them know I was affected,” Brown says. “I let them know I was going through it too. That made them more at ease.” Brown shot a tear-soaked prayer service at a local church just days after the storm. “And I cried, too,” he says. “I’m not that emotional a person. It kind of shocked me.”

Staff members disagree on whether that bond has lasted. They take comfort in the fact that the circulation numbers are strong. They’re thankful that advertising is strong. They feel that the local newspaper proved its mettle. That it showed why newspapers matter. They don’t know what that is worth in the long run.

“How do you measure that?” Lehr asks. “As we get away from that event now, going on a year, it’s hard to say what carryover there’s going to be with readers. I think there was appreciation of our coverage of the tornado, but readers are a changing lot. They move away and others move in, and it’s what have you done for me lately that matters. I think we’re still too close to see what it will mean for the Globe.

“I hope for greater understanding on my part,” Lehr says, “and that’s about all I can wish for.”

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Bret J. Schulte is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. He has previously written for U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, among other publications. Tags: ,