JOPLIN, Mo. – Joplin, Missouri, will remember the 161 victims of the May 22, 2011, tornado in a somber ceremony Saturday as it also remembers its resiliency.
Joplin’s official tally is that the tornado affected 17,000 people in the city of 50,000. But walking through flags commemorating the victims Friday, it quickly became apparent it affected nearly everyone.
Sunday Moulton was a grad student in Buffalo, New York, at the time. Her cousin went flying in a bathtub, holding her daughter as the EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin.
Their lives were spared. Her mother’s was not.
Sally Ann Harris Moulton had just finished acting in the play “I Remember Mama” at Joplin’s Stain Glass Theater and was helping tear down the set.
“She did a building sweep before she headed to the basement,” she said. “The wind pressure actually sealed the door. She was a hero. She chose to take that risk to save others.”
Moulton now has memories of more than just her mom when she thinks of her mom. When she came to the community where 4,000 homes were destroyed, she was the one getting random hugs.
Moulton would end up writing her dissertation on Joplin’s rebound and the 18,000 volunteers who spent 1.5 million hours rebuilding homes and restoring the community’s faith.
“The fact that even people who had lost everything got up and started helping their neighbor. They had nothing to their name, and they were there helping side by side,” Moulton said.
Joplin remembers the victims through a series of memorials at Cunningham Park where Saturday’s ceremony will take place. On Friday, 161 flags were placed with the names of each life lost — including Ben Peterson, who was 27.
“I think it’s healing. I really do,” Peterson’s mother Leilani Halverson said.
Healing is something Joplin’s been doing for a while now, but many say now it’s stronger than ever.
“In the end, we rebounded stronger than before,” said Rob O’Brian, former president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
“You’d hear somebody say, ‘For Joplin,’ and this cheer went up, and that’s when you knew this community was going to survive,” Moulton said of the community she now considers family.