JOPLIN, Mo. — After a drive-thru graduation last year due to the pandemic, Joplin High School principal Dr. Stephen Gilbreth, showed 41 Action News the spacious gym where this year’s gradation would be for 470 students.
“This will provide some normalcy,” he said as he gave a tour of the large, modern Joplin High School.
Moments after a graduation ceremony in 2011, a devastating EF-5 tornado hit Joplin.
“I can remember all the weather alerts going off on our phone,” said Justin Crawford, who was a teacher at the time.
“Most everybody had left. About five thousand people were at the ceremony,” Kerry Sachetta, assistant superintendent for operations of Joplin Schools said.
In May 2011, he was the principal of Joplin High School and he had stayed after the ceremony which was held at a local university where he had to take cover.
“I started getting text messages that said the high school had been hit,” he said. “I’ll never forget when I drove up on the high school and saw it.”
Dr. C.J. Huff was the district's superintendent in 2011 and was caught in the tornado's path.
“My wife was with me,” Huff said. “I just remember telling her we lost hundreds if not thousands of people. There’s no way people survived this.”
Of the 161 victims of the tornado, one worked at the district and seven were students including Will Norton who was 18.
“He was probably two to three blocks behind me on his way home with his dad," Huff said.
IN 2016, Mark Norton sat down with 41 Action News and described getting caught in the tornado’s path with his son less than a minute from their home.
“As he was pulling over you know stopping the vehicle, I can remember him praying and reciting scripture," Mark Norton told 41 Action News in 2016.
Mark Norton continued describing some of the final moments he had with his son during the storm.
"I can remember thinking gosh he is so scared and I had my arm on him and during that time all of the windows are blowing out and there was pieces of plumbing and junk and steel going thru the car and it was picking us up like 3 different times and I don't know when I actually lost him," Mark Norton said in 2016. ”When you talk about 'meant to be' I think I was supposed to be there with him. You know and witness that. And he did so much for so many people in his lifetime."
After the storm, Joplin was mourning the lost and rushing to help survivors.
“Everybody felt it,” Huff said.
“The trees were gone, the houses were flattened,” Sachetta said.
Somehow, the community had to also plan for the future.
“You’re just trying to think, how do you have school?” Sachetta said. “We settled on an empty space over at the mall.”
The classes of 2012, 2013 and 2014 spent their junior and senior years after the tornado in a converted portion of Joplin’s mall and Sachetta said they made it work.
“The first few years were pretty tough, but by year three we were pretty good at it," he said.
Then, in 2014 the new Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center opened.
Of the many features for the 2300 students there, the wrestling room doubles as one of the large tornado shelters.
“This is a 6-inch solid concrete wall,” Gilbreth said. “And it will withstand an EF-5 tornado.”
He also showed 41 Action News a light on the exterior of the building to alert the community that the doors will open so they can take shelter in case of severe weather.
It’s some comfort for a community moving forward but still mindful of their past.
“Are we stronger now than we were? Yes. That’s not the way we want to get stronger,” said Sachetta. “Move on and not forget and try to be better every day.”