A tornado on May 22 turned the small U.S. town of Joplin, MO, and the lives of its residents upside down and inside out.
It cut a path of destruction 1-mile (1.6-km) wide and 14-miles (22.4-km) long, much of it in the southwest Missouri city of 50,000 people. It killed 153 people.
What has been learned about the quality of the residents? Ask Duce Lett, general manager of Frank Fletcher.
“People are doing things together and for each other that before the tornado I don’t think would have ever happened,” he tells Ward’s.
“Nobody is griping. Not the employees, not our customers, nobody. Everybody has been stepping up. Right now, as we sit here, we’re moving forward, together.”
Like scores of businesses along the main drag in Joplin, Frank Fletcherbecame more wreckage than anything else. Of the three primary buildings standing prior to the tragedy, only one, the used-car office, remains intact enough to be functional.
Lett and his family, who live about 20 minutes south of town, were headed to church the morning of May 22. They never reached their intended destination.
“We had stopped to get gas,” he says. “People were running around the gas station frantically and saying they couldn’t get their cell phones to work. I asked a guy I knew what was going on.
“He said he had heard a tornado had touched down in Joplin, but he didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
Lett returned to his pickup truck and switched on the radio for reports on the storm that hit on the south side of Joplin.
“They were sending storm watchers out to assess the damage,” he says. “About five minutes went by and the guy reporting was traveling up Rangeline Road, where our dealership is.
“As he was driving, he became more and more frantic. As he passed our dealership, he said, ‘Poles are down all over the cars at the Toyota store, the windows are out, the whole face is torn off the dealership.’”
The radio reporter started crying on air as he reported one demolished building after another.
Instead of going to church, Lett and his wife, Kristie, dropped their kids off at their grandmother’s house. They then went home to get a 4-wheel all-terrain vehicle, because “the radio announcer kept talking about how debris was covering all the main streets. We figured it would be the only way to get around.”
They hitched the ATV and its trailer to Lett’s pickup truck and headed into town. Nearing Joplin, the couple instantly realized the catastrophic level of the storm. They parked the truck about 3 miles (4.8 km) outside of town and rode the ATV in.
“There were families that were just finding their way out of their houses, and the whole town was eerily quiet, except for sirens,” Lett recalls.
“We were on a stretch of road I drive every day, and I could not tell where we were. Absolutely nothing was standing. There were only large piles of rubble and people walking around in a daze.”
He and his wife made their way to the Toyota dealership to find exactly what had been reported. The two main buildings were almost entirely destroyed.
As bad as it was, everything else in the area was worse. Emergency workers asked if they could use the least-damaged used-car building as a makeshift triage center.
“The EMS/EMT personnel began stocking our shop with supplies such as blankets, water, first-aid material and cots,” Lett says.
“We worked on this with them for roughly an hour, when police officers came by and told the emergency crews that looters had taken shotguns and ammunition from a neighboring sporting goods store and they were talking about stealing vehicles.”
When police began recruiting people who could help navigate through the back streets of the city, Lett and his wife volunteered. If the full impact of the disaster hadn’t struck yet, the final blow was about to be administered.
“They asked us to escort a pickup truck through town to the hospital, but we could not use the main road, as it was blocked with debris. We rode through the backstreets.
“When we arrived at the hospital, we realized that the truck was not hauling injured people, but they had recovered four dead bodies from the rubble and needed to get them to the morgue.
“We led them around to the back, where hospital officials had organized a makeshift morgue,” he says.
Lett and his wife ultimately turned their attention to their work family, checking one by one on the well-being of dealership employees.
One of the employee’s daughters was impaled by a piece of tree from the back right buttocks through to her hip. She was in critical condition. That was the worst injury within the immediate dealership family
Others associated with the dealership died. “We lost some customers, some people that we know,” Lett says. “I’ve never hurt for somebody so bad in my life.”
As the events were unfolding, he was most impressed by the way community members came forward. “There were people you could tell, maybe weren’t natural leaders, but they stepped up and started taking leadership roles,” he recalls.
Weeks after the tornado hit and the national news media has gone on to other stories, Joplin remains wounded but not beaten.
As Lett and his team rebuild the business, they still are selling cars. With computers conked out, they began doing paper-and-pencil transactions.
For Lett, the mission isn’t just about rebuilding the dealership, it’s about rebuilding Joplin.
While he spends hours working with contractors on new building plans, and selling cars without the benefits of modern technology, he also has launched an effort on radio and elsewhere to inform people that much help still is needed.
“Joplin will heal,” Lett says. “It will take time, but you can already see the determination of our city to put our businesses and lives back together.
“Our store is very blessed to employ an incredible group of people that have pulled together better than any group I have ever witnessed.
“We have sales people that have doubled as dealer-trade drivers; mechanics that have doubled as carpenters; finance and insurance people that have doubled as janitors.
“I have truly been inspired by the people that work for me and their attitude.”
Putting things back to normal is something the Missouri Automobile Dealers Assn. has been trying to help with since before the tornado hit.
Missouri car dealers, business owners and citizens have been challenged for months now by generally severe weather, broken levees and flooding, says Sam Barbee, association president.
“We’ve been dealing with a rash of storms that have affected all four corners of the state,” he tells Ward’s, adding, hands down, the Joplin tornado was the most devastating.
“My son went down there after the tornado and said, ‘Dad, it looks like somebody just took a giant lawnmower and went right over the city.’”
The focus for MADA is families, Barbee says. While dealers have insurance for their losses, many of their employees either aren’t covered or fully covered.
So the association has been taking donations and plans to give up to $1,000 each to such affected dealership workers. “It is all about the employees and their families,” Barbee says.
Perhaps surprisingly, Frank Fletcher Toyota was on pace to sell 30 more cars this June than compared with last year. But there’s a reason for that.
“There were 8,500 dwellings destroyed and 25,000 people without cars,” Lett says. “They have insurance checks and they have to get something to drive around.”
All things considered, he counts his blessings.
Nearby remain areas of complete devastation, he says. “So we feel pretty lucky. You come in to work and see what’s around and just think it’s never going to get done.”
But he says rebuilding the city is like “eating the elephant one bite at a time; it is going to take a while.”
Lett is “a humble man who continues to help people affected by the storm,” says Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister.
“You do what you can, and at the end of the day you notice it’s not as bad as it was,” Lett says. “And then at the end of the week, you can see it’s a little better still.”
While it might be easier for property owners to collect their insurance checks and move on, almost everyone Lett knows plans on rebuilding, in exactly the same place they lived pre-tornado.
He estimates it’ll be a couple of years before the town is structurally back together. A newly built Frank Fletcher Toyota is expected to open in February.
“When we have the grand opening, when we do the ribbon cutting, for me, that’s when we will have started a new chapter on this story,” Lett says.