Imagine the chaos and emotions of experiencing one of the largest natural disasters in the United States. Now imagine you are a police officer in your beloved community that has endured this devastation! Learn how Matt Stewart, Joplin, Missouri Police Chief reflects on that night, May 22nd, 2011.
Where were you when the tornado hit and how did you hear about it?
I was at home in southern Missouri, and my brother called me. He said that a tornado had hit the west side of Joplin. It is not abnormal for tornados in this area, and I figured if it was big enough, someone would call. Then he called back about 10 minutes later, and said that he heard that it had hit “St. John’s” and it was bad. I figured I needed to turn on my radio at that point. Of course, there was a lot of activity on the police radio so I decided to come up to Joplin.
Where did you first go once you went to Joplin that night?
I initially went up Rangeline and I stopped at 24th and Rangeline for a bit to help with security at the devastation at Walmart, Home Depot and that area that was hit pretty hard. I eventually ended up at 20th and Connecticut and we set up a command post. I spent the next day or two there.
When you were driving up Rangeline for the first time, what was your reaction, and separating that out from the fact that you had a job to do?
It was a bit crazy! It sounded really bad on the police radio traffic. Then I get up there, and businesses are gone, power lines are down and cars are everywhere. You are trying to keep the place secure and keeping people out. But then you have parents coming up and saying that their kid works up there and they want to find their kid. It was hard to keep people out so we abandoned that for a little bit. Driving down 20th street from Rangeline to Connecticut, it looked like a war zone. All the landmarks were gone, all the trees were gone, all of the houses were gone. So it was pretty surreal at that point. Even then I still had not grasped how big it was!
What was your reaction when people wanted to lend a hand?
It was odd and very humbling! It was weird how many people just showed up at 20th and Connecticut that night — all kinds of people, citizens, other law enforcement, people that had just dug themselves out of their home that had just lost everything. There was a couple of guys that showed up with a backhoe and bulldozers. They helped clear an area so a helicopter could land. We even had people from the Tulsa P.D. It was amazing seeing these people from that far away and getting to Joplin so quickly. Even to this day, I will hear about or talk to another police agency and find out that they were in Joplin helping, and I never knew. We had over 100 agencies that came to Joplin to help! It was so big, we were not able to know who all came.