JOPLIN, Mo. — Joplin began a day of solemn remembrance today with a sunrise service to honor the hospital staff, emergency workers and other survivors who sprang into action when one of the deadliest tornados in U.S. history carved through the city exactly one year ago.
Gov. Jay Nixon told those at the Freeman Hospital service that Tuesday’s tranquil dawn reflected the sense of renewal and hope in Joplin since the May 22, 2011, tornado that killed 161 people and injured hundreds of others.
“Scripture tells us that the path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day,” Nixon said.
The hospital has seen a surge in use because the tornado destroyed St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which has since occupied a succession of temporary facilities but is being rebuilt at a new location — and renamed as Mercy Hospital Joplin.
The twister was the nation’s deadliest in six decades, and it damaged thousands of buildings, including the city’s only public high school. Groundbreaking ceremonies are scheduled at three sites for replacement buildings, including Joplin High School’s future home.
A 4-mile unity walk through some of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods begins at 2 p.m. in neighboring Duquesne, where more than one-fourth of the community’s 750 homes were destroyed and nine people died. The Joplin portion of the walk begins past a Wal-Mart where 200 people survived the storm by huddling together in employee break rooms, bathrooms and other designated safe zones. Three people, though, were killed inside that store.
The walk will conclude with a moment of silence at Cunningham Park at 5:41 p.m., the precise time when the EF-5 tornado packing 200 mph winds hit Joplin. The city park, which is across the street from the hulking remains of the St. John’s hospital, has since been rebuilt.
Malichi Murdock, 17, was on stage at a community theater when the tornado hit. He was hit in the head by debris, and he doesn’t remember anything from that night. His face was so badly damaged that his parents initially didn’t recognize him when they saw him at Freeman six hours later.
“It was like a war zone” at the hospital, said Susan Murdock, Malachi’s mother. “The smell of blood, people everywhere.”
Three people inside the Stained Glass Theater died, including the play’s director.
While many of Tuesday’s events will reflect upon the past year, community leaders are also looking ahead toward what is bound to be a long recovery effort.
In January, elected officials and other members of a 45-person recovery committee endorsed a long-term recovery plan that calls for the creation of four new business districts that would allow residents to live and shop nearby and a unified approach to rebuilding that ensures new construction meets certain design standards.
In March, the city hired Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, of Sugar Land, Texas, as its “master developer” to oversee the rebuilding plan.
The day’s events are also expected to attract some of the more than 130,000 volunteers who descended on southwest Missouri from across the country to help out. That group includes a contingent of bicyclists who left New York City’s Central Park nearly three weeks ago on a Cycle for Joplin fundraising ride organized by a group of former Joplin residents known as the Joplin Expats.