The Joplin 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 F5 tornado while witnessing the strength and the indomitable will of its residents.
May 22, 2011 while driving back from New Braunfels, Texas, my family and I heard that a tornado had hit Joplin. We had watched the storms build to our east most of the afternoon, but hadn't known their strength until the moment we heard the desperation in the voice on the radio asking for help from anyone who could hear him.
Over the next few days, we watched the horror unfold in Joplin. Many Falls City residents pulled together to help to raise money and set up donation sites. Volunteers were banning together to make the five-hour drive to search for survivors or clean up debris. My husband, Brian and I had discussed volunteering for the impossible task and the more we discussed it, the more we felt compelled to make the trip.
Friday night we packed as many donations as we could fit into our car from Robin Cooper’s donation drive. We pulled out of town at 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning and made record time. Everyone was trying to get into Joplin to help; the traffic was incredible for this part of the country. We were about three hours outside of Joplin when we picked up a radio station that was all survivors calling in searching for missing loved ones, missing dogs, cats, photos, wedding rings, and other irreplaceable items. It was impossible to hear, but we couldn’t shut it off. I began to wonder if I had prepared myself for what we were about to experience.
The moment we pulled into the city limits of Joplin my hands started to tremble. The traffic was bumper to bumper in this small Missouri town. Sirens rang out from every direction; volunteer tents were set up on every corner. Each car we saw had a different states license plate. Piles of water bottles lined each street like little homes. It looked like a war zone before the war. There was so much preparation but no damage. North Joplin looked like any other busy city in America, but with the National Guard, thousands of volunteers and supplies on every open patch of concrete and grass.
Cell service was down, so we stopped at the Ignite Church and dropped off our carload of donations collected from Falls City and the surrounding communities. We stopped at the gas station next door to get something to dring and overheard a conversation between the clerk and another woman. They were discussing her friend and co-worker from that same gas station who was still missing. My heart started to beat faster.
We arrived at Missouri Southern State University and were amazed at how organized everything was only a few days after the tornado had hit. We signed our waivers, received our instructions and within a few minutes we were given a few cases of bottled water, respirators, gloves, medical supplies, and shown to a school bus with 40 other people. We boarded the humid bus in the 95 degree May heat. The bus was relatively quiet; a few people chatted until the bus driver asked all of us if we had been to ‘ground zero’ yet. We all looked around at each other and said no. The driver slowed way down as we topped a hill, turned to look at all of us and asked us to prepare ourselves. The hill had a railroad crossing and homes on each side with lush, full trees. It was shady, and then it wasn’t. Forty people gasped at once and went pale. My eyes filled with tears and others began to sob.
It looked like a junkyard as far as the eye could see. Trash, cars, homes, businesses, smoke, fires, rubble, everywhere. Paths had been cleared for us to drive but that was all you could make out. As we passed the Home Depot that had taken a direct hit and eight people were killed nobody said a word. The only sounds you could hear were sirens. Everyone eyes were still as big as saucers as we all tried to process what we were seeing in front of us.
We made it to our drop off point in what looked like the parking lot of what must have been a bank. Someone said it was the remnants of a bank where the day prior Anderson Cooper had taken shelter from severe weather. We unloaded and were greeted by a pickup load of Joplin city employees. They gathered us and explained what we were going to be doing. We would be walking a mile and a half to a residential neighborhood that had been completely leveled by the tornado. We were assigned to a lot where a home once stood. We were not allowed to enter any ones home no matter what. If the owners begged us for help and asked us into their home, we were still not allowed to do so. We had to stay on the path that was cleared for us and not allowed to stray off of it for any reason and under no circumstances were we allowed to take any photos. They explained that the residents of the area we were entering had hit their limit with the media and gawkers coming in and taking photos of their heartbreak. If we came across any personal belongings such as photos, jewelry or anything that was salvageable we were to give them to our team leader. Then came the reality of the situation. We were likely to find a body or human remains as we cleaned up. As they explained this to us in graphic detail, the woman next to me started to sob uncontrollably. They explained that tornadoes shredded things and it would be likely that we would come across part of a human body. If we did, we were to quietly clear the area and respect the fact that 156 people were currently missing and they had families all around us right now searching for them. So clear the area and find our team leader and explain the situation.
Our group of 40 began the longest walk any of us had taken up until this point. What we witnessed on this walk was utter devastation. Homes were spray painted with messages of hope, thanks and anger. I saw faces of grief as people searched through piles of rubble looking for pieces of their old lives. My eyes met those of fellow human beings with such rage as if to beg me to stop gawking at their situation, but I couldn’t help but look. My mind couldn’t process what I was seeing. Books still on shelves sitting in the middle of yards covered in wood, mud, and clothing. Cars in the middle of bedrooms and trees pulled out of the earth.
We made it to our assigned lot where the shell of a green ranch style home stood. It had been gutted, the windows were gone, and the insides sucked out, but the frame still stood. We dove in picking up clothing, wood, and debris that was unrecognizable. We separated the piles into electronics, large appliances, hazardous waste, vegetative debris, construction debris, and household garbage. The first thing I found was a photo of a young girl celebrating her birthday. I started stuffing any photos I found into my pink work boots until I found my team leader. Brian and a group of men went to work cutting up a large tree that had fallen over in the front yard.
I met a woman in her 50’s who had driven from southern Texas with her sister, and a group of college kids from Kansas City. None of us wore our respirator masks due to the intense heat and humidity. It was sunny and now nearing 100. We had to wear long sleeves and jeans due to the nails and fiberglass.
The sights and sounds were haunting but the most haunting thing about the day was the smell. The aroma of rot and earth riddled the air and is something that will stay with me the rest of my life. We all knew what we were smelling that day was death, but we were all too scared to say it. People were getting sick from it and tried to wear their respirator masks, but breathing was impossible while wearing them.
Our team leader returned to check on us and immediately took a man to get a tetanus shot after he stepped on a nail that was so big it went through his boot. I, on the other hand, managed to lean on a wall to take a break and took a shingle to the face giving me a black eye and scratch to the cheek. The guy who had flung it over apologized profusely, and we laughed it off.
The owners showed up to thank us, and I handed over the pile of photos I had stuffed in my boot. I’m sure they were not theirs, but with no team leader and our time winding down I had to give them to someone, and I hoped at least one would be theirs. The woman said she wanted to hug me, but I was so covered in dirt, and God knows what else we opted to shake hands. She said the photos gave her some hope.
After hours in the heat doing work I didn’t know I had the strength to do, our group made the long walk back to our pick-up location and waited for our bus. Our group had powered through emotions, heat exhaustion, dehydration and fear to pull together and clear out this yard for one family that lost everything. We worked without a break for five long hours. We were all bleeding, covered in mud, sweat, and filth as we sat together quietly and took it all in. We sat in the middle of ground zero each with a million yard stare. Our bus was the last bus to leave that night as the curfew was about to take effect and residents were leaving to head back to where ever they were staying. While loading the bus some of us were finally allowed to take some photos of the homes that were now barren.
On the bus, I looked around at the faces of the people with whom I had shared this experience with. They all gave so much and asked for nothing. They were tired and emotional; some started sharing their stories of who they were and why they were here. It was interesting to hear where they came from and why they felt compelled to be there. We all felt needed, and that day we were needed.
We unloaded back at the College to the Missouri Cattleman’s Association greeting us with open arms and food. They had a full meal for all the volunteers, and it was exactly what we needed. We were given all the food we could eat and asked for nothing in return. We spread out along the MSSU Campus lawn and ate, all still a little shell-shocked by what we had all witnessed.
Each of us stood up waved goodbye, knowing we would never see each other again. We were all in such shock we never thought to exchange names or numbers. We just exchanged prayers and well wishes and went on our way. We shared something big that can’t be explained in 1,800 words; we were bonded for life that day.
Brian and I quietly drive to Parsons, Kansas an hour away from Joplin. It was the closest hotel that could accommodate us. The city of Joplin and the volunteers we worked with that day changed something in us that day. What we saw will haunt us for the rest of our lives, but the people we met will always hold a place in our hearts. We feel in love with the city of Joplin that day. We feel like it’s a little of our city now and we are so proud of that.