Interview with Joplin City Parks Director Chris Cotten
Theresa: And you are back inside MyFixitUpLife with my husband Mark.
Mark: And my wife Theresa, here on the Extreme Makeover Home Edition “about to rain” set, here in Joplin, Missouri.
Theresa: It might rain. We might have to cut it a little short because we are outside.
Mark: We will continue. And we will continue because I sat across from Chris Cotten here. He’s the director of Parks and Recreation in Joplin, Missouri who told a story of his experience here with this tornado that — you talked for about an hour and a half and I wanted it to continue. It was amazing.
Chris: Yeah it was a very interesting night to say the least. It was good, bad — lot of bad, but I saw a lot of good things. Saw a lot of people step up and help, but overall it was not a good experience.
Mark: You said one thing, and Tracy Hutson said this before that I’m sort of keying in on, amidst all of it, good comes of these kinds of things in a way.
Chris: Yeah what I was amazed about was you know my first day on the job here was March 1st, my family wasn’t even living here yet they were still living in Kansas City, which is where I came from.
Mark: And the tornado was May 22nd?
Chris: May 22nd. I woke up in Harrisonville, Missouri that morning, and my wife was fussing at me to get stuff done at the house there to get ready to go on the market. And so I was trying to get our house ready there to go on the market, but I also had a house here, we bought a fix-it-upper down here so I was trying to get things done down here so I was like ‘Look I have to get to Joplin.’ Anyway, I rode back through town; I got here about 3:30 in the afternoon and went to Lowes to buy all the things I needed to build a privacy fence. About 5:00 Lowes was filling my truck, and about 5:10 or 5:15 somewhere in that range I was at the stop light in front of Home Depot and that’s about the time that they were breaking in on the radio saying tornado watch, they were saying golf-ball, softball sized hail. So I got home and I was more worried about, we had a new family car so I was worried about getting it in the garage, and of course the garage is full with boxes and everything from moving. Anyways, so I get home and about that time the hail starts and the tornado sirens start going off and I was watching TV and I don’t remember which station it was but they started talking about how the tornado was on the ground and then they thought they were off the air, but they weren’t off the air and you could see the tornado and it was raining really hard and then the rain sort of let up a little bit. And being the Parks Director I just got in my truck and went to start checking the parks, and I got to Schifferdecker Park, which is where my office is, and I was taking stock of the trees and I was like that’s not too bad I can get a chainsaw crew on this chainsaw crew on that. And one of my employees, his name is Cody Smith, he came in and he was pretty upset and he was saying, ‘What are we gonna do, what are we gonna do?’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘The hospital is gone.’ And it didn’t really sink in…the hospital is gone.
Mark: How could that sink in? It’s unimaginable.
Theresa: That’s not something that you hear every day.
Mark: Those words don’t go together.
Chris: So I started to head up Main Lane and of course there was no power and street lights were down. And when I got closer to the storm zone, I saw a tree down — saw a couple of trees down, and driving down getting close to Cunningham Park there’s a little rise and coming over that little rise there was a house on its side. So then it really started to sink in okay this isn’t just a little tornado. So I kept going down and then I saw the hospital and I was kinda like ‘Okay where’s the park?’ And all I saw left of the park was some of the playground equipment standing up.
Mark: And that was it?
Chris: That was it.
Mark: A park that used to be full of trees, full of all kinds of stuff.
Chris: 116 trees to be exact. So $800,000 worth of trees gone in a couple of seconds.
Theresa: I just can’t even imagine.
Mark: So as the Parks and Recreation Director who’s been on the job for a month and a half, where do you drive next? I mean what do you do?
Chris: Well Memorial Hall is kind of the city’s backup building if you will. It’s an emergency center for the citizens and so I started to make my way there and I started trying to call people in but we lost cell towers and everybody was overloading the circuits so I couldn’t reach my staff. But hit or miss I got a hold of a couple of people and news and information started getting in and somewhere between 6:30 and 6:40 I made it to Memorial Hall and when I got there, there were a few people there and some of my staff was there. One of our employees, Cody Hubbard, ran two miles, I heard, to get there because everything was down; he couldn’t get his truck through the streets. So he was there and he showed up in cut off t-shirt and shorts but he was ready to go to work, and the Park’s crew did a great job that night. The city as a whole came together, but the Park’s staff they really stepped up. Worked Memorial Hall for hours, countless hours to make sure everybody had what they needed there.
Theresa: Now how long did it take for you to talk to your family? For them to know that you were okay.
Chris: I called my wife somewhere on my way to Memorial Hall and said I’m okay and our house is okay but I’m gonna be really busy and you’re not going to hear from me for a while. And then I got to Memorial Hall and people started coming. And they just kept coming and coming and coming. First they came in pickup trucks and cars then they started showing up in school busses and we just kept working.
Theresa: When you learned about Extreme Makeover: Home Edition coming here and that they were going to be working on the park here at Cunningham, what was your reaction?
Chris: Well obviously I’m very thankful that they came to help us and you know right after the storm we spent so much time cleaning the park, and when you see a park you know kids go to parks and our park was destroyed. So we spent countless hours and the state park employees helped us clean the park. And every day we literally raked the park — broken glass, broken radios — I mean we found pieces of VHS tapes, anything you could imagine was in the park. The fence that used to be around the tennis court and the basketball court acted like a big wind screen, a big net, so we had just all kinds of debris wrapped up in there. The bathroom that’s being converted to a shelter of course it was destroyed — all the glass block that was around the top imploded the night of the storm so a lot of clean up. And you know some of those citizens were wanting us to hurry up and get the park back, but you don’t go back and rebuild a neighborhood park when there’s no neighborhood. It sends the wrong message to your citizens so we’ve just taken our time but now with homes going up, now is the time to bring it back. And obviously the show is helping us bring it back faster than we could do it on our own so we are very thankful for that.
Mark: Wow, you know what’s coming across to me, and what I was lucky enough to talk with you before about, what’s coming across to me is something that the people here are maybe luckier for than Extreme Makeover as great as the show is, is your continued leadership, level head, obviously a big heart.
Theresa: And we’ve been watching you work too.
Mark: I’ve seen you in a hole, I’ve seen you cut a tree root out.
Theresa: You jump right in, whatever is happening, and you help with the problem.
Mark: And I’ve seen us unfortunately have to take a break.
Theresa: We do.
Mark: We’ll be back with more from the set of Extreme Makeover in Joplin, Missouri with MyFixitUpLife.