Joplin Globe journalists discuss their experience covering the 2011 tornado

Thursday, May 3, 2012 | 9:31 p.m. CDT; updated 6:08 p.m. CDT, Saturday, May 19, 2012
Joplin Globe reporter Wally Kennedy speaks Thursday about his experiences during the May 2011 tornado that ripped through Joplin. The event was held at Fred W. Smith Forum in the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

COLUMBIA — Wally Kennedy and his son were watching "Pirates of the Caribbean" when a man meandered into the theater and warned of threatening weather ahead.

Nothing concerning, Kennedy thought, but they decided to leave anyway.

Driving home, he could see a giant gray mass rising over the western horizon of the town. A reporter at The Joplin Globe, Kennedy knew that a story, not yet knowing how big, was unfolding and tried to make his way to the newsroom.

Joplin, however, was already split in half, so he drove to several hospitals in the area to find out how many people were admitted and try to get more information.

But Freeman Hospital was the only one left. The others had taken a direct hit by the storm.

The emergency room was flooded with victims, carried inside on makeshift stretchers made from doors and plywood that the storm had torn from houses.

For three-and-a-half hours, Kennedy put his camera away and volunteered, helping people find their loved ones, keeping aisles open and handing out towels and blankets to patients.

On the phone with Globe Editor Carol Stark, he asked if there would be a newspaper the next day.

"Yes," Stark said. "Are you here?"

Eventually, he made it to the newsroom and started to write.

"I had one hour to put together the most important lede of my life," Kennedy said. "And that was my first night of the tornado."

That Sunday evening, 33 of the 117 staff members at The Joplin Globe lost their homes. Their newspaper page designer, Bruce Baillie, died as a result of injuries.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, seven staff members of The Globe came to MU to relive May 22, 2011, when the deadliest tornado in recent U.S. history reduced the heart of Joplin to little more than six miles of debris.

More than 30 people came to hear the staff's personal accounts at the Fred W. Smith Forum in the Reynolds Journalism Institute, hosted by Associate Professor of Journalism Charles Davis.

Stark opened the forum with an introduction of the staff that included herself, publisher Michael Beatty, photojournalist T. Rob Brown, Kennedy, reporters Jeff Lehr and Susan Redden and City Editor Mike Stair.

The trailer of “Deadline in Disaster” followed, a documentary that tells the story of the tragedy through The Globe's eyes and how it responded as a news organization.

The film was produced by the Missouri Press Association and directed by Beth Pike and Stephen Hudnell, Emmy winning journalists from Columbia, with help from retired Associated Press journalist Scott Charton. Its first public screening was at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Afterward, Stark, Beatty, Kennedy and Lehr each shared their experiences.

"I remember just standing in the newsroom and thinking, 'What am I gonna do?'" Stark said. "And that was perhaps the only minute I made a decision, the minute it all just kind of kicked in, that years and years of covering Southwest Missouri tornadoes, and thinking, 'This is what we do.'"

The first thing she did was call Kennedy, who covers weather. When she heard his voice and learned he was on the job, she knew they had a plan and would proceed.

In 2008, Stark survived a tornado that flipped her Ford Expedition.

"She knew what people felt like because she was in it directly," Beatty said. "Carol could bring another sense of experience to what people experienced in the terror of this."

It was those instincts, he said, that allowed Stark to know what to do.

Stranded reporters fed information from their cell phones, which another staff member was able to publish online within 30 minutes of arriving at the newsroom.

Drenched, Lehr walked in and said to Stark, "Carol, I've lost everything. But I need to do something. I want to help. What can I do?"

She told him to write the story he had just told her.

Brown also lost everything, but instead of asking Stark for help, he apologized "because he couldn't get to work to cover the biggest story ever," Stark said.

A choked-up and teary-eyed Stark talked about Ray Donald Miller Jr.

Miller's son "Tripp," a 49-year-old man with Down syndrome, died in his father's arms during the storm. Miller was the first victim to approach The Globe and ask for help.

'That's when I knew what our immediate purpose was going to be, and that was going to be helping people who list names of people who were dead," she said.

The Globe was able to release the names of the dead four days before the state did.

No one sat out for more than a couple of days, Stark said. Everyone was back at work within a couple of days and producing "miraculous work."

"When you go through something like this, it reinforces your mission and reinforces your commitment" Beatty said.

For the first time on Thursday, The Globe staff viewed the documentary film.

When the film's producers first approached Beatty and Stark about the project, Stark was reluctant. There was no time. They were still dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy. 

Charton explained to Stark that the film would benefit journalism students everywhere. They would see beyond the textbook and classroom what it's like to be journalists in the midst of a story they're covering. And that convinced her.

“I told Carol that this work so many readers may take for granted when the newspaper lands on their front step every morning or when they read it online deserved recognition because she started telling me about the losses sustained by the Globe staff,” Charton said.

“After all, they’re not only journalists. They’re neighbors in Joplin. They went through this with Joplin. It affected them as it affected Joplin.”


Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Michael Sleadd May 4, 2012 | 8:22 a.m.

A huge omission in this article is no mention of Columbia filmmakers Beth Pike and Stephen Hudnell who directed, wrote, filmed, and edited this amazing film. They did a beautiful job and it was a great evening at the Missouri Theatre. Congratulations to Beth, Steve, the Joplin Globe and all who made this presentation a success.

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John Schneller May 4, 2012 | 9:43 a.m.

Thanks Michael -- and another reader -- for pointing out the oversight. I was the supervising editor on the story. We've added the names of the directors who were the creative force behind the documentary.

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