How Joplin, Missouri, Used Nature to Recover from a Devastating Tornado

I’ve always been struck by the undeniable power of nature. It destroys—as it did on a late Sunday afternoon in May, in Joplin, Missouri, six years ago when an EF5, mile-wide tornado chewed through the city in 38 minutes. It left 161 people dead, 1,150 others injured, countless more traumatized–and the rest of us watching and aching for them all. Aside from the human toll, it also caused billions of dollars in damages, and left thousands of trees decimated, uprooted or maimed.

Joplin was devastated. It needed to recover in every sense—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Many stories have been told in the aftermath of how the city drew together, rose up, and rebuilt.

But one story that’s not been told is about how nature, the thing that brought the destruction, has been the very thing that is bringing much needed emotional recovery to the community. Nature heals too. This is the story we wanted to tell.

When I flew in to Joplin, I gasped as I saw the massive scar in the landscape left by the tornado. It was a mile wide and several miles long. From that perspective high above the city, all that I could see was the destruction. But on the ground, a different picture emerged.

Key community members shared their stories and those of the community. Chris Cotten, head of Parks and Recreation for Joplin, was one of them. I quickly began to see what he saw: hope, hard work, and resilience were everywhere. And then I heard about the butterflies. Many community members told us stories of how the butterflies had saved them. Children told stories of being protected by them–like angels–while the destruction roared around them. I was captivated; but we weren’t the only ones who saw nature as a potential piece of the city’s recovery.

Just after the tornado hit, The New York Times ran a series of haunting images, including ones of Cunningham Park, showing a devastated landscape; mangled trees that had been stripped of their canopies and bark. These caught the eye of Cornell University’s Keith Tidball, who dropped everything to go to Joplin and, in his words, begin planting. A researcher and author, Keith has done some amazing work and spent years studying how nature can be a source of resilience for communities in crisis. He had been working in post-Katrina New Orleans just prior to the tornado.

Keith connected with Chris, and the idea for a healing garden was born. They worked quickly, with the support of the TKF Foundation to assemble a diverse team that included city officials, landscape architects, psychologists, musical therapists and urban planners–and most importantly, the community. Fusing research, design and nature—a healing garden the community named the Butterfly Garden and Overlook opened to the public in May 2014. As former Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean described to us, it’s a place where children and adults go to feel safe and whole, and to reflect. To recover. The nature effect is real. And our understanding of just how powerful its benefits are continues to grow.

Stories like this one, from Joplin, have much to teach us. Even in the hardest hit places, whether the disaster is natural or man-made, nature can heal and restore—and has the power to unify and rebuild communities in lasting ways.

This guest post is by film maker Alden E. Stoner, who is also a board member of the nonprofit TKF Foundation.

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