Special Reports

Outdoors community pitches in to aid Joplin recovery

Randy Blaukat, a nationally known professional bass fisherman, has no plans to move from his hometown of Joplin.

Oh, it would be easy to do. When a killer tornado ripped through the southwest Missouri town on May 22, it uprooted much of Blaukat’s life.

Friends were killed, people he had known for years had their homes demolished and the path of destruction made it hard to even recognize the town.

But Blaukat, like many, is resolved to help Joplin recover.

“It was an unbelievable tragedy, but now we have to focus on rebuilding the town to be even better than ever,” said Blaukat, who competes on the FLW Tour. “Now comes the hard reality of the cleanup.

“There is a constant flow of dump trucks in and out of town. But this whole thing has brought everybody together.

“We’re just doing everything we can to help each other get through this. We have a lot of good people in this town.”

And a lot of good people helping. Not only have there been armies of volunteers helping with the cleanup, others have come forward to help Joplin residents with outdoors-related interests.

The Tackle the Storm Foundation is gathering donations of fishing equipment to present to Joplin children who lost everything — including rods, reels and tackle boxes — in the tornado. Bass club volunteers have at least 400 rods and reels that they will hand out from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Northpark Mall in Joplin.

Missouri State Parks, a division of the Department of Natural Resources, is mounting a drive to see that Joplin’s city parks have trees again. Many of those parks had their trees — some of which had been there for decades — stripped of their bark by the powerful tornado.

The state parks agency is participating in the Odwalla Plant-A-Tree program, in which the public can go to websites (odwalla.com/plantatree or mostateparks.com) and vote for a site to plant donated trees (in this case, a vote for Missouri is a vote for Joplin). Each vote is the equivalent of a tree. Donation boxes have been placed at Missouri state parks to supplement the effort.

Pro fishermen such as Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira have spent time in Joplin, helping with cleanup efforts.

Meanwhile, Blaukat has been busy helping friends affected by the powerful tornado that changed the town forever.

“Without seeing it, you can’t really understand how much damage it did,” Blaukat said. “I was driving back from a bass tournament, and I got back into town about an hour after the tornado hit.

“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off. People were walking around in shock, and it was just surreal. The first thing that hit me was: ‘How did anyone survive this?’

“The biggest trauma was seeing your hometown destroyed.”

Blaukat drove to his house and found that it was relatively undamaged. But just a few blocks away there were neighborhoods where nothing but foundations were left.

“You couldn’t have set a tornado down in a worse place,” Blaukat said. “It came through one of the most populated and busy parts of town.

“One of the guys I was in a bass club with earlier was killed. And dozens of friends lost their homes.”

But with each day, the grieving and shock subside, and residents like Blaukat work to rebuild the town. They are grateful for programs like Tackle the Storm.

It was started by freelance writer Don Barone, who often writes about the emotional side of professional fishing. He saw the destruction that a tornado had caused in little Cullman, Ala., and he wanted to do something for the children. That’s when he organized an effort to pass out fishing tackle to children who had lost everything.

Now that effort is being expanded to Joplin. Members of the Backlashers Bass Club of Joplin, the Kansas City Junior Bassmasters and the Missouri B.A.S.S. Federation Nation have coordinated getting donations and organized the giveaway.

“A lot of these kids have lost everything,” said Jim Zieger, president of the Missouri B.A.S.S. Federation Nation. “If we get can get a fishing rod back in their hands and get them out fishing again, maybe it will be a distraction from some of the things they’ve been through.”

Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, has a similar goal when it comes to reforesting Joplin’s parks. He wants his agency to do whatever it can to get the city back to a semblance of normal.

“Joplin lost thousands of trees in the tornado,” Bryan said. “The city parks lost oaks that were decades old.

“We saw this program sponsored by Odwalla (a company that manufactures juices and nutrition bars) as a way to reforest some of these areas. It won’t change things overnight, but hopefully it will make a difference for the future.”

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