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6 years later: Butterfly Garden helps survivors of devastating Joplin, Missouri, tornado heal in nature

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
May 25, 2017, 12:17:32 PM EDT

Since May 2014, families of Joplin, Missouri, have found solace in visiting the city’s redesigned green space in Cunningham Park.

The park’s scenic Butterfly Garden and Overlook, funded by the TKF Foundation, has provided a calm place of healing for those whose lives were forever changed six years ago.

“These are spaces where people can come and reflect on what is meaningful, either in the past or going forward,” said Kathy Wolf, a social scientist with the University of Washington.

The serene area in Joplin is a stark contrast to the devastation inflicted upon the park on May 22, 2011, as an EF5 tornado ripped through the city.

Emergency personnel after Joplin 2011 tornado

In this May 22, 2011, file photo, emergency personnel walk through a severely damaged neighborhood after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

Packing winds of more than 200 mph, the tornado was the deadliest to strike the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Storm Prediction Center, it is considered the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history, claiming the lives of 161 people.

Before the storm interrupted dinnertime that Sunday evening, some people reported experiencing a familiar sign of an impending tornado.

“[The weather before the tornado] had been partial sunshine, very humid,” said AccuWeather Enterprise Solution Senior Vice President Mike Smith.

“People I interviewed in Joplin told me the air had the heavy, muggy feel that Midwesterners often associate with the air before tornadoes,” he said.

Smith said many people in Joplin may have been unaware of the approaching tornado threat.

Initially, the National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a tornado warning for the area just north of Joplin.

“The emergency manager sounded the sirens in Joplin because they had a policy of sounding them if any part of the county was included in the tornado warning,” he said.

A few minutes later, the NWS tornado warning had extended to Joplin.

However, the emergency manager decided not to sound the alarm again, as it had already been sounded once before.

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“By not sounding the sirens a second time, people had no way of knowing the situation had changed from one where they were safe to one where they were in great danger,” he said.

Adding to the threat, according to Smith, was the fact that meteorologists had been unable to spot the rain-wrapped tornado, which had appeared invisible along its path.

Joplin Butterfly Garden and Overlook

Visitors in Joplin, Mo., enjoy the Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Cunningham Park. (Photo/City of Joplin)

The mile-wide tornado ravaged more than 6,000 homes in the area and caused $3 billion worth of damage, making it the costliest tornado on record.

Today, the people of Joplin have managed to rebuild what was destroyed by the 2011 tornado.

Cunningham Park’s key role in recovery for many people has demonstrated nature’s unique ability to aid in the healing process following a traumatic event, despite its role in causing it.

Among the park's features are a bench with a journal for visitors to write their thoughts, as well as steel frames representing homes lost in the tornado.

“[People] turn to nature for personal recovery while also feeling the loss of nature,” said Wolf.

According to Wolf, research has shown that being in a natural setting within several minutes of a traumatic encounter can reduce stress levels.

“What was really interesting about Joplin in particular is almost immediately after the devastation of the tornado, butterflies appeared," said Wolf.

“That became the healing symbol for the community,” she said.

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