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Film Chronicles Joplin Newspaper’s Tornado Efforts

Alan Scher Zagier
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JOPLIN, MO - MAY 23:  Jim Martin videotapes the damage as he and his wife attempt to salvage medication from her brother's home before a second storm moves in, on May 23, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. "Twenty minutes before the storm, he left to go to church.  He would have been in that basement if he hadn't gone," Janet Martin said. A powerful tornado ripped through the densely populated town of Joplin yesterday killing at least 89 people. (Photo by Julie Denesha/Getty Images)

JOPLIN, MO – MAY 23: Jim Martin videotapes the damage as he and his wife attempt to salvage medication from her brother’s home before a second storm moves in, on May 23, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. “Twenty minutes before the storm, he left to go to church. He would have been in that basement if he hadn’t gone,” Janet Martin said. A powerful tornado ripped through the densely populated town of Joplin yesterday killing at least 89 people. (Photo by Julie Denesha/Getty Images)

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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — In the frantic, surreal moments following the deadly Joplin tornado of May 2011, survivors took stock of the damage, counting lives lost, homes destroyed, loved ones still missing or not heard from.

At The Joplin Globe, there would be little time to take account of what would turn out to be one of the deadliest single tornadoes in this country.

The community — battered but not broken — more than ever needed its daily newspaper.

“Every day, when I would go to the Red Cross center, there was The Joplin Globe,” said Beth Pike, a Columbia-based TV producer sent to cover the story for CBS News. “I knew they had a lot of hardship, but they went to print every day.”

Pike, herself the daughter of a small-town newspaperman, saw the potential for a deeper story about the Globe’s commitment to serving its community, even as its own employees dealt with the life-and-death issues they were also reporting on.

The result is “Deadline in Disaster,” an hourlong tribute to the Globe’s resiliency that debuted at the Missouri Theatre on Thursday night. More than 500 people attended the premiere, and a silent auction to benefit Joplin’s recovery drew more than $3,400.

Several of the Globe reporters and editors featured in the movie, which was financed by the Missouri Press Association, participated in a discussion with the audience after the viewing. On Thursday afternoon, the Globe contingent shared their stories with University of Missouri journalism students and professors.

The May 22, 2011, tornado was the nation’s deadliest in five decades, killing 161 people, including Globe page designer Bruce Baillie. The homes of more than one-fourth of the newspaper’s 117 employees were among the thousands of destroyed and damaged buildings.

Reporter Wally Kennedy, who was at the movies with his son when the tornado touched down, said he didn’t initially realize that this twister would be unlike any other to touch down in region where the frequency of weather sirens cause some to tune out the alerts.

“I wasn’t initially concerned,” he said. “That’s the (typical) response to tornadoes in our area.”

Globe editor Carol Stark called her small staff “amazing” for its commitment, recounting how crime reporter Jeff Lehr crawled from a closet, his apartment demolished and possessions destroyed, and then walked to safety so he could flag down a ride to work. His first-person account of those moments is still haunting, nearly one year later. Others worked hours on end for days and weeks straight, living in motels or sleeping on friend’s couches.

The Globe’s efforts have won it industry acclaim, including a deadline news reporting prize from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and an editor-of-the-year award for Stark from another organization. There was serious talk of a Pulitzer Prize, which instead went to the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News for its own tornado coverage.

For Lehr, who said he spent the past year “starting to pull my life back together,” the outside recognition is nice, but more gratifying is knowing that “we served our community well.”

“And I think the community appreciates what we did,” he said. “That’s our greatest award.”

“Deadline in Disaster” will be shown in Joplin on May 24 at 7 p.m. at the Central Christian Center, formerly the Fox Theatre downtown. Admission is free, and the event includes a conversation with the filmmakers and Globe journalists.

Additional screenings are planned in Ashland on May 22 at the Southern Boone Senior Center, the Columbia public library on May 23, and the Callaway County public library in Fulton on May 24.

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Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier

© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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