On May 22, 2011 a catastrophic EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., leaving in its wake 161 people dead, hundreds injured and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. As the two-year anniversary of this disaster approaches, the legal battles of many residents in the southwestern Missouri city continue.
Days after the storm hit, the SLU LAW community joined together to help in the relief effort. Students and faculty traveled to Joplin in June 2011, taking supplies and gift cards donated by the law school community. The team interviewed storm victims about legal needs, and helped clean up debris at several sites in the city.
Months later, more than 20 faculty and students returned to help with debris removal from one of the largest farms in Joplin that had been rendered unusable due to the debris deposited by the storm. A group of students also spent time with the students of Joplin High School, helping them prepare for a constitutional debate competition. Joplin High School was destroyed by the tornado, and students have been attending classes in part of a local shopping mall until construction is complete on the new school opens in August 2014.
In the aftermath of the storm, the SLU LAW Legal Clinics have taken on many cases for the people of Joplin and the surrounding community. Several have been resolved without litigation, but students and faculty are currently working four additional cases through litigation. They are expected to be resolved in about a year.
One of those cases was assigned to third-year law student Julie Houska. She spent the Spring 2013 semester working on a breach of contract suit against an insurance company for denying her client’s policy claim. As the lead on the case, Houska was responsible for drafting the initial complaint, working with opposing counsel, responding to motions and deposing witnesses.
“I liked that it was my case,” Houska said. “I was making most of the decisions and was in constant contact with my client. It was really nice to be the one that your client calls.”
Director of the Legal Clinics John Ammann has made several trips to Joplin since the tornado, as most recently as April. “They have made a lot of progress in rebuilding,” he said.
To mark this year’s anniversary, the town will host a program where representatives will talk about the recovery work, progress and plans for the future, highlighting efforts to restore various elements of the community, including its housing, schools, trees and businesses. It will be followed by a moment of silence at 5:41 p.m., the time the tornado touched down in the western limits of Joplin.