In the late afternoon of May 22, 2011, Kip Johnson stopped by his new business to complete some finishing touches. After two years of planning, Johnson and his business partners were now only days away from the grand opening of Amplify Gymnastics, a new facility that would offer gymnastics, cheerleading and tumbling classes to residents of Joplin, Missouri.
But instead of painting, Johnson barely survived one of biggest tornadoes in the nation's history. He took shelter in a truck when the storm hit, only to have that same two-ton vehicle tossed 20 feet from its original parking space. “It was like being in a demolition derby,” Johnson recalled, “I just was banging around and trying to hold on."
The tornado that touched down in Joplin that day in May 2011 killed at least 161 people and injured another 750. It took an especially heavy toll on Joplin’s business district, and destroyed a total of 533 businesses in the city, chopping up big box stores like Home Depot and Walmart as if they were vegetables in a blender.
Despite the large-scale devastation, 90 percent of the city's businesses have rebuilt since the tornado, according to Joplin's Chamber of Commerce. And less than a year after rebuilding and opening at last, Amplify Gymnastics -- along with other small businesses in Joplin -- is now expanding.
Joplin's remarkable comeback could serve as an example for small businesses in other cities across the country that face similar rebuilding challenges due to natural disasters. While the Joplin tornado ranks as one of the worst touchdowns in modern history, its destruction was small compared to the scale of damage following Hurricane Sandy, which slammed mid-Atlantic states and New York City in October.
In Joplin, the city's success is a testament both to its community spirit and to small business lending. Amplify's owners said loans from the government were essential to its return. Johnson and his business partner, Paul Comstedt, were able to get approved for $269,000 in Small Business Administration loans, including loans for rebuilding as well as working capital. All together, the SBA awarded loans to 97 businesses in Joplin for a total of more than $14 million.
Today, Amplify has surpassed its registration goals and has created at least 20 new jobs in the area. “We now have another slew of issues, like how to expand and grow to accommodate everyone,” Johnson said.
It was not an easy road to rebuild. Comstedt said it was hard to focus on work in the weeks that followed the disaster. “To reach that final point and then to have everything back at square one or worse? To motivate without even having seen the business open?” Comstedt recalled.
But Amplify's dream did not die so easily. As for many first-time business owners, Johnson and Comstedt's plan to open the gym had been several years in the making. They imagined a venue that was not only about sport, but also about mentoring the kids who attended. “We decided finally that Joplin really needed this,” Johnson said.
They were helped by the Joplin Chamber of Commerce, which made an aggressive push to help the city’s business community recover immediately following the disaster and opened a business recovery center within three days of the tornado. It remains open today to support the city's business owners.
Despite the government backing, the gymnastics entrepreneurs’ biggest concern was whether the community, devastated both emotionally and financially, would support a business largely considered an “extra.”
But what they found was the opposite: Parents were looking for ways to give their children some normalcy after everything else they knew had been ripped away. "From a business perspective, parents were willing to pay for that because they prioritized their kids," Comstedt said.
Below, see photos of the damage from the tornado and Amplify Gymnastics today. Images courtesy of Kip Johnson and Paul Comstedt.
Truck where gym co-founder Kip Johnson was inside as the tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., on May, 22, 2011.
All the was left of the gym after the tornado was the cement slab.
Owners Kip Johnson, Derek xxx, and Paul Comstedt (left to right) with a piece of the old building which they mounted on the entry way as a memorial.
More than 500 kids take lessons at this gymnastics facility.
The rebuilt Amplify Gymnastics opened in February 2012 and serves hundreds of local kids.