Fifty-year old Joel Euler had seen disaster before, back in ’93. Not long after he’d finished law school in Tulsa and returned home to Elwood, when a breach in the Missouri River levee nearly washed his town off the map.
The citizenry rebuilt Elwood; the Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the levee.
And when it was nearly topped again last summer, Euler was thrust into a leadership role in the town’s efforts to prevent a repeat disaster from flooding. For nearly 100 days, Euler was front-and-center in Elwood’s frantic bid to ensure that the levee would hold.
He was the one with the farm-boy background who hit upon a strategy of plugging sand boils—early signs of potential breaches—with cattle stock tanks, then ringing them with sandbags to stave off a watery ruin.
Sandbagging, he said, takes a lot of people and a lot of time. A levee is not a small structure; if you were to form a chain gang to pass sandbags to every trouble spot, “Hell, to do that, you might have 75 people involved,” he says. And so, “if you stand in the mud long enough, you think of things.”
The thing he thought of was a stock tank, and when that idea worked, 55-gallon drums to use on smaller boils.
The levee held.
It was an all-consuming experience for Euler, whose legal duties include service as counsel for the levee board. That’s a function that might normally account for 5 percent of his business. But for those 100 days, it was nearly 100 percent. He would get to the office each morning by 7, trying to cram the other 95 percent of his practice into an hour or two. “I worked as best I could, tried to prioritize and do the things that wouldn’t go away” at the firm before the next round of sandbagging and plugging would begin.
Looking back, Euler’s first instinct is to spread the credit for the town’s success. Craig Shepperd, a levee board member, paid the ultimate price when his heart gave out in August. Fire Chief Alvin Wood was instrumental, as was Leland Schoeneck, who directed the pumping effort, which peaked at 25 million gallons a day.
All were united, Euler said, by what they shared: “You have a vested interest” in maintaining that levee, he said. “You live behind it, you make a living behind it. You work together to get the thing to hold.”
The hardest part? “Somebody made this analysis: A tornado comes and goes in a matter of minutes,” Euler said. “But when you have the threat of that water for that long … the hardest part was the stress associated that something bad could happen at any time.”
Jeff Stith, Stan Hays and Will Cleaver
It’s impossible to calculate how many hours volunteers logged in answering Joplin’s calls for help after the May 22 tornado carved a seven-mile incision through the city. But hundreds of those hours were logged by Jeff Stith, Stan Hays and Will Cleaver, Kansas City-area residents who share a passion for competitive barbecuing. The longtime friends decided almost immediately to contribute with what they did best, heading to Joplin to prepare and serve barbecue. They figured they could stretch some donated food and supplies they’d purchased to feed perhaps 5,000 people.
Eleven days, 30 tons of donated meat and more than 122,000 meals later, they left Joplin with a sense of satisfaction. And with a sense of commitment to carrying their contribution forward. Thus was born Operation BBQ Relief, an organization with a goal of helping people in other communities marshal the same kinds of resources that this trio drew on in Joplin.
“We had delivery trucks just showing up at all hours of the day and telling us they were given instructions to drop off their cargo at our base site,” Stith said, speaking for the group. “Many times we had no idea from where these items came. Maybe it was a pallet of barbecue sauce. A pallet of bottled water. Cases of canned vegetables. Truckloads of charcoal and smoking wood. Toys for the children whom we encountered along the way. It was incredible. It was all of this support made us realize we were going to be successful in making a difference.”
Soon came the idea of extending that difference to people who don’t even know they’ll one day need it. “Stan, Will and I had various brief discussions during a few scattered down times in Joplin as the first week progressed about the ‘what if’s’ of taking this concept nationwide during other disasters,” Stith said.
A visit from a Red Cross official intrigued by their successes provided additional encouragement, and over the summer, www.OperationBBQRelief.org went live, along with www.Facebook.com/operationbbqrelief. Those tools “are vital to our ability to reach and communicate with volunteers and potential donors virtually anywhere,” Stith said.
Their experience is a lesson in the power of an idea. Tracing that idea back to its origins, Stith recalls a young woman, ill-dressed and exhausted 36 hours after the storm, who received a plate of food, expressed her thanks with heartfelt “God bless you,” and turned away as tears streamed down her cheeks. “This reaction for being given something as simple as a meal, something many of us take for granted each day, was more than I could comprehend,” Stith said. “I knew then that being in Joplin was where I was called to be. I knew then that we had made the right decision and had organized an effort that was going to make a difference.”
Rob O’Brian Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce
You can’t defeat an F-5 tornado, not in those horrifying moments when lives are erased, homes splintered and businesses simply vanish. But there can be victories after the storm. Rob O’Brian keeps score every time another Joplin business closes on an SBA loan. Every time a ribbon is cut on a rebuilt business. Every time a school is reopened, every time Habitat for Humanity hands over the keys to a home for someone who has lost everything.
The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce played no small role in supporting the programs that made those victories possible, and Rob O’Brian, the Chamber’s president, played no small role in extending organization’s reach in the months since the tornado. True, he makes his living as advocating for the city’s business environment, but those who have seen his tireless efforts say his contributions vastly outweighed his compensation.
The night of May 22 had not yet fallen when O’Brian’s sleeves were rolled up. They would stay that way for months. But, he says, “I didn’t give any thought, and I don’t think our team members did, either, to how long the hours were or the energy it was taking to do what was needed to be done. Our community and our businesses, and by extension their employees, were hurting and we needed to do everything we could, in whatever way we could, to help.”
Thanks in large part to the Chamber’s efforts, more than 400 of the 500 business entities knocked down that afternoon are standing again in some form, some even in expansion mode. O’Brian expects most of the 100 others to make it back eventually. But it was a hard path to take.
“There is always some churn in the marketplace; that is the nature of business,” he said, reflecting on the loss. “This level of destruction, though, really upsets the sense of community or sense of place.”
Yet in focusing on the destruction, “people lose sight of the fact that we have more than 70 percent of our business left,” O’Brian notes. Major manufacturers, the majority of Joplin’s retail, most of the downtown, and all of the lodging facilities survived with minimal damage. “So while we have lost some of that sense of place for now, I think many of these iconic businesses will return,” he says, “or find they are even more successful in a new location; giving the community again a sense of a strong business sector.”
Victory, he said, comes in other ways, as well. “Even just seeing the success in getting the debris removed,” he says, “has added to my faith that Joplin is coming back stronger.”