Nothing could have prepared my heart and mind for what I saw and experienced in Joplin beginning Friday, June 3 2011. The path of the tornado stretched 14 miles long and a mile and a half wide. It destroyed rows upon rows upon rows of homes, and into the industrial parts, Walmart, St. Johns hospital, strip malls, a nursing home, park, high schools and elementary schools…just to name a few.
When standing in the middle of the wreckage, as far as I could see was destruction… trees barren and even stripped of bark, Joplin residents digging through the rubble trying to find any life momento that may have survived the EF5 tornado a couple of weeks ago. Dead animals and rotten meat filled my nose and made me quiver to think of all the things that still existed under the rubble.
First I drove around, tears streaming down, uncontrollably. I had my camera in my lap, but took a while to gather myself enough to step out onto the tornadic minefield that used to be homes to thousands of Joplin residents.
My first stop was Pennsylvania Ave. The only way I knew the street name was from a spray painted piece of cardboard pinned to a tree. After grabbing 2 bottles of cold water out of my car, I walked up to a middle age man under a blue tarp who was picking out items from where his kitchen once stood. Every few seconds, he would run a wet towel over his face and neck, trying to lessen the burn of 97 degree weather under his make shift shade. I sat down with him for a while as he took down the cold water in two seconds flat while telling me about all the people he knew who were impaled with debris, loved ones found miles from their original locations, half mile rides in bath tubs, cars found miles from the homes, but the tears didn’t come until he began describing all the individuals he knew who lost their lives because they didn’t heed the warning. “We have warnings all the time, but never actually get a tornado in our area. I don’t think anyone will ever ignore a tornado warning again,” he said.
After removing insulation saturated debris for hours at different homes, or what used to be homes, I began to realize how many people honestly never thought this would happen, and never took the warning serious. I saw American flags stuck in the ground, in trees, on anything that was standing from where homes once stood. I wondered if the flags represented those who died in the EF5 multiple-vortex tornado that hit beginning at about 5:41 p.m. CDT on Sunday, May 22, 2011.
Several blocks away, I grabbed 3 bottles of cold water and handed them to 3 sweat soaked, ladies who must have thanked me for the water at least 20 times. The owner of the home was looking through old photo albums for any photos worth salvaging. The three ladies stuck it out in the heat all day collecting Precious Moment’s figurines, photos and other momentos.
Saturday morning I hit the rubble at 7 am. This is when I met Sue, an elderly lady with a straw hat and green blouse digging through her flattened home alone, for anything even slightly recognizable. During the tornado, Sue and her 91-year-old mother were sitting at her dining room table enjoying a glass of ice tea, debating whether to take the tornado sirens serious or not. About that time, Sue’s roof was being ripped off the house she had lived in for 49 years. Sue grabbed her mom, tugging her into the basement. “We literally made it into the basement 30 seconds before I could hear my house being sucked off its foundation,” Sue said. When the noise settled, they looked at each other in the dark and realized they weren’t alone in the basement. There was a German Shepard staring at them, the same German Shepard that lived a block away. When the two ladies climbed their way through the boards and rubble that covered the basement opening, they weren’t sure if they were even in the same neighborhood. Her car was nowhere to be found and the only thing left of her house was the basement, now filling with water and debris. There was no way to tell where any roads were or who’s stuff was scattered all around.
By the time I met Sue, she was dealing with the loss of a family member, 2 friends and a few neighbors. Her neighborhood, to me, seemed the hardest hit. Those without basements, who were home…did not survive. There were very few remnants of homes left in Sue’s neighborhood on Monroe St. “My next door neighbor’s house was picked up and she was thrown out of it and was found on the other side of town.” So many people are left without homes and vehicles.
After a whole day of sorting and removing debris for Sue, she and her friend continued to find things worth keeping, but very seldom did they find anything that belonged to her. She did find her late husband’s Purple Heart metal. Another thing she found was her mother’s alarm clock, the old fashion white one, that had stopped at exactly 5:41 pm…the time the tornado first hit.
A few blocks down, was a woman and her husband who were looking for their jewelry in the rubble. I began helping them remove debris as we talked about her 3 dogs that died and her 8-year-old granddaughter who was found inside the bathtub about 40 yards from their house. She is the one holding her plaque that reads “Life is fragile, handle with prayer”. She found it without a scratch amidst the destruction.
I’ll never forget the people I met in Joplin and the positive attitudes of the residents. As I drove and walked around, I began to see the many messages the people of Joplin left for family, search and rescue teams and volunteers. As you scroll through the slideshow, take notice of the messages written by the hands of the people who lost so much, including loved ones. Some messages were filled with humor, while some were more serious.
I met volunteers from all over the country, Michigan, California, Florida, Wyoming, Iowa and so many more, but the majority of the volunteers were the people of Joplin themselves. Even those who lost their homes and cars were out there handing out water and food to volunteers and other home owners…amazing! And beautiful! During this trip, I realized how much one person CAN do and how one person plus one person plus one person and so on….make all the difference in the world. The people of Joplin are strong and ready to rebuild.
Other than being a mother to my sons, I can’t think of a more valuable way to spend my time as I did hand in hand with the people of Joplin. To see the joy on their faces when they found a family photo or something that’s been in the family for centuries, was so touching.
We are one people, and Joplin is proof of that. One big family, ready to hold tight to each other and rebuild their lives with a positive drive. I am impressed and full of emotion as I still am not able to wash the fiber glass off of me completely. I can only imagine what they are going through.
This only touches portions of my experiences there. A message I was asked to bring back with me by one of the residents is this, “Please take the warnings serious, you can see what happens if you don’t. We never thought anything like this would rip our neighborhoods apart, but it did…and now we all wish we would have been more prepared. Cleaning this up ain’t easy.”
Joplin, I’ll see you soon and I love you
Payneway is a very small town just up the road a bit south of Truman. I spent the entire day filling and slinging sand bags. From what I saw, 90% of the town was at least sitting in 2-4 feet of water and rising.
Buried Oil ~ Pensacola Beaches Aug. 4 2010. Clean-up crews pulled more than 1,600 pounds of oil out of the beaches in a 12-hour period
These workers were all locals hired by BP, they worked 12 hour shifts in 100+ degrees, 7 days a week. The supervisor was on his 96th day straight. They were open, offered me water, and took me on their buggie to see exactly what they were doing. This is all on a wildlife conservation, and the turtles are nesting so they could only work 150 yards at a time on areas which must be approved by both the coast guard and wildlife official before hand, and with no heavy equipment. They are still pulling about 1600 lbs a day simply by sifting with rakes to not disturb the wildlife.
I couldn’t take any photos at night because I couldn’t enter the sand because the turtles are extremely protected. The workers can’t even use flash lights, they have to use small dull red lights on their helmets.
Soldier’s Home From War. The 875th Battalion returns to Jonesboro, Ark. Nov. 5 after almost a year in Afghanistan