Days after the Joplin, MO tornado.
Very few experiences in my life have left me speechless, the moment my son was born, witnessing my nieces’ birth and now seeing the devastation in Joplin, Mo. Thousands of volunteers spent their holiday weekend helping those affected by the recent tornado while witnessing the strength and the indomitable will of its residents.
May 22nd, my family and I were driving back from Texas when we heard that Joplin, MO. had been hit by a tornado. We could see the storms to our east but hadn’t known their intensity until that moment.
Over the next few days, we watched the horror unfold in Joplin. Many residents of Falls City pulled together to help.
My husband, Brian, and I had discussed going to Joplin that week. We came to the conclusion that our holiday weekend could be spent lying around watching TV or we could drive down and help out. We could make a difference.Nikki McKim takes a moment to herself during cleanup.
Friday night we packed as many donations as we could fit in our car from Robin Cooper’s donation drive, and left at 5:30 Saturday morning. Laura Pagnano who had just gotten back told me to prepare myself, and I thought I had. The moment we pulled into Joplin my hands started to shake. The traffic was bumper to bumper with many out of state vehicles. Stacks of water bottles lined every corner, sirens rang out constantly, and volunteer tents were set up everywhere. North Joplin looked like a busy, bustling little city. If you hadn’t heard about the tornado, you wouldn’t have known anything was devastated. With cell service down we stopped at the Ignite Church and dropped off the donations collected from Falls City and surrounding communities. We stopped at the gas station next door to get a drink and overheard a conversation between the clerk and another woman. They were discussing her friend and co-worker at that station who was still missing. That made it very real for us at that point.
We arrived at Missouri Southern State University and was amazed at how organized everything was less than a week after the tornado. We went inside to sign our waivers and get our instructions. Within minutes we were given 24 packs of bottled water, and respirators and were shown to our bus with about 40 other people. There was some small talk between volunteers until the bus driver asked us if we had been to ground zero yet. Not one of us on the bus had. The driver then changed his tone and told us to prepare ourselves. We were heading up a hill full of trees and homes where nothing looked out of place — and then we topped the hill. There it was. Forty adults on a bus went dead silent and pale at the same time. I started to sob, wondering if I could do this. As we drove in front of the demolished Home Depot, all you could hear throughout the bus was sobbing and sirens. Nobody spoke a word as we drove through the heart of the devastation.
We made it to our drop off point in the parking lot of a bank where a few days earlier Anderson Cooper had taken shelter from severe weather. We unloaded and were greeted by Joplin city employees. They gathered us around and told us that we would be walking a mile and a half through a residential neighborhood completely leveled by the tornado to get to the lot we were assigned to. They asked us not to enter any home even if we were asked by the owners, not to go on anyone’s property unless we were asked to do so and under no circumstances were we to take any photos. They explained that the residents of this area had hit their boiling point of people taking photos of their heartbreak. We were asked to take any personal effects that we thought were salvageable and give them to our team leader. They then prepared us for the possibility that we may find human remains. This made my heart sink. The woman next to me started crying uncontrollably. They asked us to clear the area and try not to make a scene if we came across any of the 156 people who are still missing.Photo by Nikki McKim.Photo by Nikki McKim.
Our group of 40 started walking one of the longest walks any of us had ever taken. What we witnessed on our walk was utter devastation. Homes were spray painted with messages of where the residents had been placed, or messages that said, “Thank you, Jesus,” “God Bless Joplin” and my favorite, “Loot, and I’ll Shoot.”
We made it to our assigned home. Everyone jumped right in, separating the piles into Electronics, Large Appliances, Hazardous Waste, Vegetative Debris, Construction Debris and Household garbage. The first thing I found was a personal photo of a young girl celebrating her birthday. I started stuffing these into my boots until I found our team leader. Among some of the other things I came across was A song book titled "Safety with Songs" It was one of those unexpected finds, but the real ironic find was discovered by the man next to me in the middle of the cleaning chaos. He found a book, one single book titled "A series of unfortunate events" This made us both just stop and look at each other. He said, why is it during a time like this you find "ironic" things or Bibles. I just shrugged, and the woman next to me said, because when you find those things, its God telling you, im still here.
Brian and a group of other men started cutting up a large tree that had fallen over in the front yard and putting it into a pile. As the day wore on, I met so many wonderful people. A woman in her 50s who had driven from southern Texas with her sister worked herself sick; a group of college kids from Kansas City didn’t stop once. None of us wore our respirator mask, because of the near 90-degree temperature. Besides the haunting visions all around us of homes lost, the smell was the most disturbing part. The smell of rot and earth filled the air and is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Our team leader returned to check on us and immediately took a man to get a free tetanus shot after he had a nail go through his foot. The owners showed up soon after that, and I took them the photos I had found. I knew these were probably not theirs but, if there was any hope even one was, I wanted them to have it. The woman thanked me for finding them and helping clean up. She shook my hand and apologized saying I was to filthy to hug and told me the pink boots I bought at Farm & City Supply the day before made her smile. She said they gave her some hope and it was great to see some color in the otherwise drab mess. Those boots were hot but, I had multiple nails stuck in them and never had one go into my foot.
Our group was amazing. We all summoned courage and strength we didn’t know we had. We worked through the heat, pain, and emotions that should have crippled us. After 4 and 1/2 hours of back breaking work, I was about to collapse. Brian and I were covered from head to toe in dirt, fiberglass, sweat, and cuts. We sat down and silently took it all in for a while. Our last bus was about to leave so we started our mile and a half walk back. The curfew was about to take effect and residents were heading back to the places they were staying. At this time some of us discreetly snapped some photos of the homes that were cleared out. These Houses looked like they had been sitting for years. The dirt and debris that sat in and on some of the home made them look drab and vacant for years. I really would like to see a photo some day of the house we cleaned up. I wonder how pretty it had been before.
When we made it back to our starting point, we were emotionally and physically drained. I had fiberglass all over my face and was red from itching. I also had a dark mark under my eye from getting hit with a shingle on accident. Brian’s arms were covered in dirt and red from the fiberglass, all of us volunteers looked like we had fought a tough battle and won. As we loaded our bus, I noticed the faces of these volunteers who gave so much and asked for nothing. They were tired, sweaty and very emotional. Some started sharing their stories of why they came and from where. It was interesting to listen to everyone tell their stories.
When we got off the bus the Missouri Cattleman’s Association had Hamburgers, Hot dogs, drinks and other snacks for all the volunteers. It was a blessing! We were tired and very hungry and they offered us as much food as we could eat and asked for nothing in return. All of us sat in the grass of the MSSU campus and quietly ate. We made our way back to our vehicles and went to rest for the next day.
Brian and I drove to Parsons, Kan., an hour away to the closest hotel that could accommodate us. We discussed what we had just seen. Brian told me the vision that sticks with him is a home we passed where a bookshelf filled with books was next to a TV still on the Fireplace that stood alone in a pile of debris. What stuck with me was turning around at the house we were assigned to and seeing the ruminants of the Home Depot under an American flag hung by a crane and a fire still burning in the distance.
Sunday ended up being a mess of media, people, and protests. Volunteer hours were cut short due to Memorial Services and the President’s visit. We decided to get out of town before it got completely out of control.Photo by Nikki McKim.Photo by Nikki McKim.
I would encourage anyone reading this to consider taking the drive down. The city of Joplin will need volunteers for a long time. They were so grateful, sweet and strong. They shared their stories, food and water even when they had little of it to give. It was the hardest work we had ever done but, the most rewarding. And we will continue to go back and help out until they ask us to stop. God Bless the 2,500 volunteers that showed up when we were there, and God Bless the people of Joplin.
FOOTNOTE: I have added a bit more to my story than was in the paper. There are also more photos as well. Keep in mind; the photos were taken very discreetly. I didn't take any photos of home owners who didn't give their permission.I didn't explain due to length why and what made me go down and help. First off, This story is for Brooke Rainwater and her family who live in Joplin. I met Brooke through a mutual friend over two years ago. She was the first person I thought of when I heard Joplin had been hit. She and her family are fine but, there were a few scary days where we hadn't heard anything about her. I wanted to help out in a town here such a great lady lived. Also, I wanted to set an example for Alex. That it is great to give donations but, sometimes it's greater to lend a hand, smile and listen. We are close enough to do just that. Finally, the biggest reason I wanted to help out came from the fact we live in the vast area known as Tornado Alley. It would happen to us. This type of devastation and death could swiftly move through our town and take so many of us in an instant! I want to believe if it happened tomorrow people would show the same support they have shown Joplin. I hope we don't every get desensitized to what is happening around us with the tornadoes. I want to keep helping as I can, and I will. I want the day to come when Alex tells his great grandkids that he was proud of his mom and dad. That would be the greatest reward.