Recovering Joplin


Published: 01/01/2012

by Allan Duffin


How towers did their part in relief efforts after the tornado

From time to time, after a natural disaster has struck a community, towers from various companies band together to help pull the pieces back together. Last year, a huge tornado struck the community of Joplin, MO, and leveled the town. Towers responded immediately, in many different ways, all reflecting the dedication and caring that helped made a difference in the lives of the people in Joplin. In this article, you’ll read about one of the towing companies who participated in the recovery efforts, and in the story to follow, about another tower who came up with a unique idea to help bring some joy to a devastated community.

Jon and Carrie Kupchin’s company, Santa Fe Tow Service, is headquartered in Lenexa, Kansas. The company has offices in Lenexa, near Kansas City; Joplin, MO, and Cedar Hill, TX, a suburb of Dallas.
Jon Kupchin said that his crew is always ready to swing into action when- ever local communities need towing and recovery services, especially after a natural disaster that leaves devastation and tragedy in its wake. “We’ve dealt with tornadoes in the past,” said Kupchin. “One came through Kansas City. We moved maybe 200, 300 cars at that time. We’ve had floods where we’ve moved 800 to 1,000 cars.”

A tornado that pounded Greensburg, Kansas in May 2007 crushed the city and killed 11 residents. “We were called upon by some insurance companies to go down and move equipment and stuff like that,” recalled Kupchin. “So as far as moving volume, it’s nothing that we can’t handle.”
On Sunday, May 22, 2011, one of the deadliest tornadoes in American history dropped onto the city of Joplin, Missouri and wiped everything out.

A House Divided

That afternoon the phone rang at the Kupchin home in Lenexa. Jon Kupchin had been spending a relaxing day watching television. He picked up the receiver. On the other end of the line was Rob Lane, the company’s terminal manager in Joplin, a community of 50,000 people just 150 miles due south of Lenexa. Lane was getting ready to transfer to Dallas, where he would open the company’s new branch office. He had put his house on the market the previous week.

“Well,” said Lane, “I don’t have to worry about selling my house anymore.”
“Why is that?” said Kupchin.
“Because I just got hit by a fricking tornado!”
Kupchin couldn’t believe it. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.

Kupchin switched on The Weather Channel and got his first glimpse of the devastation in Joplin. “I saw it and thought, ‘Oh, my God, the whole town is just devastated.’”
On the other end of the line, Lane described what he saw from his house as the twister approached. “I looked out my window and all I saw was black,” said Lane. “When they say it sounds like a freight train, that’s a true statement.”

Lane grabbed his dogs and crawled into a closet in the center of the house. When the tornado blew through, it tore the roof off the house and knocked down the bedroom walls. Afterward only half of the structure remained standing.

But the crisis wasn’t over. “I think what was the most damaging thing in that city was that, after the tornado, it rained for two days straight,” said Kupchin. “So anything that was damaged or if the roof was gone, all of the rain poured in, soaked all of the insulation and sheetrock, and all of that fell into the houses.”

Going Into Action

After telling Lane that he’d get back to him, Kupchin dialed his dispatch office. He wanted to know if his tow trucks were being summoned to Joplin to pull vehicles out of the debris.

“Has anybody called from Joplin?” he asked.
“No,” answered the dispatcher. However, it didn’t take long for this to change. Within five minutes, “the phones just blew up” with multiple calls from Joplin. But Kupchin couldn’t talk to any of his staff and crew in that city — the tornado had knocked down all of the cell towers.

Kupchin didn’t want to sit and wait, so he quickly notified his key personnel in the Kansas City area. “Let’s go,” he told them. “We’ve gotta go.” Kupchin packed his bag, ran out of his house, jumped in the truck and drove straight through to Joplin. He was on the road for several hours and saw lots of nasty weather as he roared down the highway toward his destination.

Cleaning Up

Vehicle owners, trucking companies, and other drivers began calling Kupchin and his staff for help. “MODOT [Missouri Department of Transportation] called my cell phone from a satellite phone because they had no other communications,” said Kupchin.

“We know you have several trucks you have to upright,” the MODOT representative told Kupchin. “But we’ve got to get the highway open.” Interstate Highway 44, a major east-west route, was a mess. Kupchin moved his trucks and equipment there, “and we cleaned the highway and got it open.”

As he and his crew worked on the side of the highway, caravans of ambulances passed by. “It was just unbelievable how many people came to move people who were at the hospital or trapped in debris,” said Kupchin.
As the insurance companies activated their crisis action teams and began hunting for missing vehicles, Kupchin received more phone calls. “Usually they want you to move straight from the scene to their [vehicle] pool,” explained Kupchin, “but their pool was 75 miles away.” On an average day the pool might hold five cars from the Joplin area. After the tornado, the number of vehicles on the lot would swell to over 2,000.

Six Wild Weeks

Kupchin stayed in Joplin for a month and a half, coordinating recovery efforts with his crews. He was limited by the debris left in the tornado’s wake. “I can’t go in there and just pick up cars and take them straight out on a two-car [carrier], and I can’t get transporters or four-car haulers into areas where the cars are,” he recalled. He used whatever equipment would do the job. “We did it with our rotators and any wrecker we had.” At the peak of the operation, Santa Fe Tow Service had 17 trucks on site.

“We were moving over 150 cars from the disaster area each day,” said Kupchin. “Our multi-cars were delivering four loads a day, anywhere from seven to 10 cars per load. I had six of those multi-cars running, and 11 light-duty trucks bringing cars in.”

One of the biggest challenges for the tow truck drivers was locating missing vehicles. “The assignments would have an address, but the vehicles – boats, trailers, vans, RVs, box trucks – were seldom there,” said Kupchin. “Cars were wedged in trees, on top of houses, underneath houses, and sometimes blocks away. Depending on the location of the vehicle, our heavy-duty fleet would often assist the light-duty drivers recovering the vehicles from the debris.”

Office manager Misty DeGonia played a huge role in the recovery efforts. She had grown up in Joplin and recruited local residents to act as guides, riding along with the tow truck drivers. This was especially helpful because the tornado had blown away street signs across the city. “Every time drivers came back to the office for their next assignment, Misty and her office staff made sure they stayed fed, hydrated, and motivated,” said Kupchin.

Kupchin personally loaded the transporters at the staging area for rescued vehicles. “That’s all I did, all day long, from six in the morning until dark,” he recalled. “At one time we had over 275 cars in the yard, because the light-duty trucks were bringing them in faster than we could get them out.”

During the six-week operation, Kupchin and his crew slept in a makeshift camp and in their trucks — there were no motel rooms available.

Looking Back

The spirit of cooperation among the various recovery workers greatly impressed Kupchin. “We worked around the debris trucks, and the debris trucks worked around us. We worked around the power company, and the power company worked around us.”

At one point the power company needed to lay a replacement line, but a giant pile of obstacles blocked the workers from accomplishing the job. “There were 17 trailers upside down and on top of each other,” said Kupchin. “We had to get those trailers out of the way. So everybody just knuckled down and got the job done.”

Many months after the tornado screamed through the city of Joplin, Kupchin and his company were still recovering property in the area. “We’re still moving cars — not as many, but the Army Corps of Engineers is still digging out cars that have no insurance.” Those cars are placed in the street, where the local police department uses 10 towing companies on a rotating basis to hook up and take the vehicles away.

It was an incredible operation in the middle of a completely devastated area. Now, just as then, Kupchin and his crew are ready to help if a natural disaster sweeps through a nearby community. “There was plenty of work for everybody,” said Kupchin. “There was more work than people could handle. But we all got through it together.”