Eight months ago, a massive tornado blew through Joplin, Mo. creating a six-mile path of destruction and killing 161 people. At the time, city officials urged gawkers to stay away and allow the city to mend on its own. Now, the city's tourism office has created a map for visiting tourists - a map to aid them in touring the damage.
The new tourist map is distributed at welcome centers, hotels and restaurants and combines facts on the twister, points of tornado-related interest, and images of the destruction.
Roughly 7,500 dwellings were damaged in the May 22 tornado - over 4,000 of which were deemed inhabitable in the city of just 50,000 people.
Some city officials see the map as a positive step, being that most of the sightseers end up contributing to the local economy by spending their money at local restaurants, hotels and shops. But in a town still reeling from the effects of a major disaster, the idea of so-called tornado tourism isn't going over well.
Though the map was released in December during the holiday season, the controversy grew after local TV news station KY3 reported that the city was also developing an iPhone app and bus tours of the disaster zone. An addendum to the story later showed Joplin's Convention & Visitors Bureau (JCVB) Director Patrick Tuttle telling the station that those concepts were only ideas and that no plans were in the works.
We are not trying to promote tourism, Tuttle assured the International Business Times. That was never our intent. We are not trying to take this destruction and brand it.
However, some are not convinced. Local resident and photographer Aaron DuRall created an anti-tornado-tourism Facebook page on Sunday called Joplin Citizens Against Tornado Tours.
The city of Joplin does not need to sponsor this plan, DuRall said on the page. That's the biggest problem here. The tours would be both tacky and incredibly insensitive to the majority of Joplin residents.
We all want nothing more than to see Joplin rebuild and come back better than ever, he added. But there are better ways to help the town and its economy.
Tuttle claimed the map was in no way a marketing ploy and was created after the office fielded numerous requests from visiting volunteer groups, contractors and out of state workers, weather watchers, media, writers and bloggers, travel groups, individuals and tour bus operators.
On the reverse side of the map, we compiled the latest facts, numbers, and details on how you can volunteer, Tuttle said. We've had about 117,000 registered volunteers as of Jan. 10 that have worked about 720,000 man hours.
It would take a person 82 years working 24/7 to accumulate that much work, Tuttle added.
Providing a wealth of information, Tuttle said the map was an educational tool for the community and visitors.
The Joplin area has other, more traditional attractions. It's located along Historic Route 66, was the birthplace and childhood home of George Washington Carver, and was an important location in the story of Bonnie and Clyde. However, the tornado is indelibly tied to the city and Tuttle said that's something people need to acknowledge. It's why he won't altogether rule out an iPod app down the road.
We're talking about the big picture of technology, he said. How do we tell this history of Joplin in five years. In 10 years. We're thinking long-term. Ironically, the naysayers on Facebook are the ones who would most benefit from this down the road.