Joplin, Missouri, tornado: 5 years later

Anniversary of Joplin, Missouri, tornado
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Story highlights

  • About 160 people died when a tornado ripped through Joplin on May 22, 2011
  • City holds four days of events "to remember what we lost" and thank volunteers

(CNN)Five years ago, a tornado ripped through the Missouri city of Joplin, tearing apart buildings and neighborhoods, and killing about 160 people.

As it marks the fifth anniversary Sunday, Joplin has worked to rebuild, both its spirits and buildings.
    Here are five things to know about the deadly storm -- facts and memories of that day:

    It was the deadliest in the U.S. in decades

    The Joplin tornado was the deadliest in the United States since 1950 -- when modern record-keeping began. It injured more than 1,000 people and packed winds of more than 200 mph.
    The storm damaged or destroyed 7,500 residences and 500 businesses, displaced 9,200 people, affected 5,000 employees and generated 3 million cubic yards of debris, said a report from the city of Joplin.
    The nation's deadliest tornado hit March 18, 1925, killing 695 people and traveling more than 300 miles through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

    National Weather Service made changes after Joplin

    After the tornado struck, the National Weather Service sent an assessment team to study the community's preparedness and make key recommendations.
    "The tornado that struck Joplin offers important lessons about disaster preparedness," then-National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes said in 2011.
    The study found many did not take shelter because sometimes false alarms had been sounded over the years. The recommendations included an improved warning system that conveyed the urgent nature of an approaching tornado and the devastating impact it could have.
    Increased use of social media, such as text messaging and smartphone apps, also was recommended, as was increased collaboration among government agencies.

    'His life was worth something'

    Daniel Fluharty was working at a Pizza Hut five years ago when the warnings sounded.
    "We went outside to look and it was so wide, it looked like a thunderstorm," he said Sunday. "There was no funnel. It wasn't even raining."
    He credits co-worker Christopher Lucas with saving his life. Lucas ushered almost everyone at the restaurant into a walk-in freezer.
    Lucas died in the storm.
    "He saved my life, he saved a lot of lives," said Fluharty, 22. "He was a veteran, and I want his kids to know that his life was worth something."
    Fluharty said one of the first things he saw after the tornado was an ambulance arriving from Springfield, Missouri.
    Fluharty said he was inspired by the selfless nature of the first responders and, in turn, has helped with disaster response after tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, and Branson and Baxter Springs, Missouri.
    "As soon as we could get there, we would help them with the cleanup, the hard work that no one wants to do," he said. "It's not glamorous. We know better than anyone else that there's nothing worse than picking up your life."

    Survivors have tornado tattoos

    Steven Weersing was 17 when he and his friends drove straight into the storm.
    "It just happened in a second, all the windows blew out and a tree fell onto the windshield," he said.
    The twister picked up the car, and Weersing held his arm out the window trying to hold on to the vehicle's door so he wouldn't be sucked out.
    "The car rolled over onto my arm and broke it," he said. "I was blown through the window. I was in and out of consciousness, and I woke up and my friends were carrying me and I saw my arm and I passed out."
    His friends put him into the first vehicle they saw -- a storm chaser's truck -- and he was taken to the hospital.
    He credits the tornado with bringing him and his girlfriend, Tara Fleming, together. They are raising two daughters -- Briella, who turns 3 Monday, and Bailey who is almost 2.
    "Before we were just good friends," he said. After getting out of the hospital, he says, "Tara was definitely someone I could rely on and supported me. Anything I needed help with, she would help me."
    Now they both have tattoos. His is a big black tornado. Hers says, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," with the word survivor and the date of the Joplin tornado.

    Remembering the storm

    Joplin is treating the tornado as a historic event.
    The city organized Joplin Proud, four days of activities "to remember what we lost, thank the volunteers who came to our aid, and be proud of the progress we have made as a community," the city government website said.
    A Joplin Disaster Recovery Summit was held Thursday and Friday, with guest speakers discussing what the city learned from the storm. Over the weekend, a marathon was held, and citizens gathered in a city park to remember the victims and to thank the people and organizations that helped rebuild the town, such as AmeriCorps, The Joplin Globe reported.
    More than 140,000 registered volunteers provided 877,301 hours of service, according to the city report. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave $20 million in assistance for housing and transportation.
    The National Weather Service also noted the historic nature of the storm by creating a Remembering Joplin event page.