On Sunday May 22 an F5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., leaving in its wake more than 150 dead and upwards of $3 billion in damage. In the immediate aftermath two local powersports dealers humbly stepped forward to help with the rescue and recovery of their community. This is their story.
PART I: RESCUE
JOPLIN, MO. — Torn and battered, Powersports of Joplin’s oversized American flag continued to fly at half-mast nearly two weeks after the Sunday evening tornado that decimated one-third of the city and killed more than 150 people.
Store owner Garrett Paull is ignoring flag etiquette by displaying the torn banner as a symbol of the still-standing community. Powersports of Joplin, a multi-time winner of the Top 100 Dealer award, suffered only minor damage compared to the total destruction just a half-mile away.
Joplin’s Harley-Davidson dealer, Cycle Connection, reported no damage at the city’s southern border. But intact facilities belie the mourning inside. A few store employees lost everything. One lost his life.
Nearly everyone not directly affected knows somebody who was.
The dealerships’ survival on the peripheral has allowed them to organize relief efforts. The two stores may have set a precedent in using social media to mobilize volunteers and supplies. Likewise, Honda’s and Suzuki’s quick decisions to authorize four-wheelers for disaster relief saved people’s lives and curbed looting, according to officials.
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the horrific situation: An outpouring of support from dealerships and rider clubs from all over the United States.
‘All twisted together’
Paull is driving his pickup through the destruction site, which is a half-mile wide, six miles long and right through the city’s center (Joplin’s population is just shy of 50,000). I’m in the backseat. Up front is Honda district sales manager Keith Johnson, who says he was completing an expense report the other night when he realized that some of the receipts were for restaurants that no longer exist.
The smell outside is disconcerting until Paull identifies it as emanating from hot dogs being grilled for workers. The landscape is familiar through TV images — trees broken off at their stumps, everything else demolished and twisted at an eerily uniform level, as if an atomic bomb had exploded. But TV images aren’t as impactful as actually going block after block after block.
“If I told you to go in and clean up a lot, you couldn’t do it because it’s all twisted together,” Paull says. “You’d have a piece of drywall imbedded in a car.” Paull has trouble identifying intersections he’s known for years.
Spray-painted onto the piles of rubble are house numbers. Some owners show pride and a returning sense of humor with messages such as “We love Joplin,” “For Sale by Owner, Price Negotiable,” “Indoor Pool Now” and on one house left standing in an otherwise flattened area “City Block for Sale by Owner.”
Paull points at two particularly large piles: the former Walmart and Home Depot. I see Joplin’s wrecked high school and the main hospital often shown in news reports. The hospital was a topic of conversation later in the day when I speak with Cycle Connection owner Scott Hutson, who had used the hospital parking lot for his Rider’s Edge training course. He stored the training motorcycles there in a huge steel container, which the tornado moved about 60 feet, toppling the bikes but not damaging them.
The hospital contacted Cycle Connection the day after and asked if it could move the container in a couple of weeks to make way for a temporary hospital. “Then they call back about three hours later and go, ‘How about today? Can we move that today?’ So we’re in the hunt for a new course,” Hutson says.
Cycle Connection as a store may have been unharmed, but the tornado destroyed the homes of four employees and killed Bob Baker, one of the store’s parts guys. The night of the tornado, Hutson, who lives in a neighboring town, rushed to Joplin to check on employees. He wasn’t aware that Baker recently had moved into the city from its outskirts, but he did know of other employees who lived in the storm’s path, one of whom had clung to the rear wheel of his car after his garage took off. Hutson helped take this employee somewhere for his injuries, then spent much of the night looking for another salesperson’s parents, whom they would discover safe at a relative’s house.
Two weeks later, as Paull drives through the aftermath, he notes with amazement that about half the rubble has been removed. During the first week, he says, “I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach all week, just literally kicked in the stomach.”
The day is hot and sunny, further removing the scene from that wet May 22 evening when darkness fell early at 5:41 p.m. Paull offers to pull over so I can get out and take some pictures, but I figure the relief workers could do without unnecessary stopping, so I settle for what I can shoot from the backseat. At the end of the destruction site, buildings untouched stand across the street from ruins.
Quick decisions save lives
Before my tour, I talk with Eric Slagle, Powersports of Joplin’s vice president and general manager. “My finance manager lost everything,” he informs me. “His home, cars, everything. He did find his dogs. The dogs are fine. But it took a few days even to do that. One of my part-time salespeople lost absolutely everything, also.” The dealership’s other 14 employees live outside of town.
The storm did about $20,000 worth of damage to the dealership. Its main sign now stands at an angle, the “H” is missing from the façade’s “Honda” sign, a 60 ft. banner tied to a fence along a highway is shredded, and an air conditioner unit shows minor damage. A bike trailer owned by the store happened to be attached a salesperson’s truck the night of the storm. Luckily, the store had insurance and may even qualify for a special Small Business Administration loan.
State Farm has moved into the previously vacant building next door, and reps can be seen coming and going. The agency even asked to borrow a portion of the dealer’s parking lot.
Like Hutson at Cycle Connection, Slagle says he drove to check on the dealership right after the tornado struck. His 15-minute commute took two and a half hours. “It was insane,” Slagle recalls. “Live wires were flipping in the streets.”
The day after the storm, the power was still out (it would return the next day), but managers and a few employees came in anyway to see what they could do. Paull and Slagle loaded up two used ATVs and delivered them to the local police department. Says Paull: “I asked the chief if he could use these, and he turned around and looked at me. He gave me a hug and says, ‘You bet.’ Here’s this big, old, grizzled police chief, and he was just overwhelmed that we could get this out.”
When Paull and Slagle returned to the store, they immediately got on the phone with Honda to designate some of their new inventory as disaster relief vehicles, entitling the dealership to free flooring and invoice concessions. They also called Suzuki for a similar deal. Both OEMs acted quickly, asking only for VINs. Local police departments and the sheriff’s department ended up using two Honda ATVs, five Big Reds and four Suzuki quads. Once they’ve served their purpose, Powersports of Joplin will sell them for no profit.
“Honda and Suzuki saved lives,” Slagle says. “Time was essential at that point. The units pulled people out of wreckage that couldn’t be gotten to by any other vehicles. We heard this from the police and the rescue workers. They said, ‘Your units saved lives.’
“Honda and Suzuki need a ton of credit for allowing us to use brand-new machines, for saying, ‘Here, take them. Use them as if you owned them. Just get done what has to be done.’”
Those same quads were used to search for the body of Will Norton, the youth who was sucked out the sunroof of a Hummer H3 on his way home from high school graduation.
Officials also used the four-wheelers to fight crime. “They drove them at night to patrol areas where cars and trucks couldn’t go,” Slagle explains. “Our units helped capture people looting other people’s belongings.”
Honda also shipped in 120 generators that Powersports of Joplin can return for a refund within 90 days as long as they’re unopened. Even though price-gouging in Joplin is a problem, the dealership lowered its generator prices to just above cost. Even so, the store has yet to see a sales spike. “We will see that here in a few weeks as the rebuild starts,” Slagle says.
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