Rebuilding After Joplin

Two years after a tornado ravaged this community, a travel center serves as role model for crisis response

by Traci Carneal

JOPLIN, Mo. – Only 20 minutes after warning sirens began to blare at 5:17 p.m. on May 22, 2011, one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history ripped through Joplin, Mo., a town of 50,000. The massive twister killed 161 people, injured 1,000 and destroyed about 7,500 homes and 550 businesses.

Among the businesses damaged was a Flying J truckstop off Interstate 44. For Steven Ferguson and his co-workers, it was a stark reminder of how life – and business – can change in an instant.

Living only a mile from the store, Ferguson watched the tornado hit the Flying J site where he had worked as a cashier for three years. He recalls this moment and the days after with a genuine empathy and emotion that reveals a unique level of loyalty, dedication and pride. Despite damage to his own home, Ferguson was on hand to keep the store operational in the challenging times after the storm. 

While the basic structure remained intact, the inside of the store, the roof and the fuel tanks were wrecked. Several 18-wheelers were overturned in the parking lot like they were Hot Wheels. 

“Everything was turned upside down,” Ferguson tells CSP. “Signs shoved through the windows, all the windows were broken out, and debris everywhere. The fuel tanks, the awnings and all that were gone. Total devastation, completely destroyed, but no one was hurt.”

Ferguson shares how just two days after the whirlwind they managed to relocate store operations to a trailer, along with cash registers and clean restrooms for customers. Within just two weeks, the store was pumping gas again. Six weeks later, it was fully back in business – an impressive achievement considering the severity of the damage (and recent reports that indicate one in 10 businesses affected by the storm remain closed).

'Let the People In'
Like most Flying J stores (the store is part of what today is Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel plazas in North America, with more than 600 locations), this one has a small backup generator that powers a few lights, but not enough power to operate a business.  

When it comes to being more prepared for future storms, Ferguson says he would like to see several storm shelters in the open fields surrounding the store. “It wouldn’t hurt to put five or six underground shelters out there so people can get off the highway and somewhere safe,” he says. “Lots of people on the interstate came to our store seeking shelter from the storm, and no one was hurt this time, but we were lucky.” 

Not surprising, his advice for other convenience stores facing a similar emergency begins with the welfare of the customers. “Let the people in,” he says. “You hear about situations where people are told to leave the premises of a store and are pushed out the door. That’s just wrong. You need to protect your customers.” 

In fact, it’s standard practice for Flying J employees to knock on truck and car doors to notify drivers of a weather warning and invite them into the store for shelter. 

As for lessons learned, Ferguson and the Flying J team feel they were well prepared when disaster struck in 2011, and are confident they will handle the next emergency with the same success. One thing is certain: This cashier turned team leader, then shift leader, and now co-manager (his post-disaster efforts earned him a promotion) will be there to help pick up the pieces. 

Stay tuned for more storm stories in future issues of CSP’s Weather Preparedness newsletter.