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.”