On May 22nd, 2011, an F5 tornado tore through the middle of Joplin, MO.
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Dave Brown and his wife Tamara survived the storm by riding it out in their basement, in a 2' by 3' space. They emerged to find the walls of their house, a converted church, blown off the foundation, and a lifetime of belongings piled under the rubble. Both of their cats survived as well, and they found their missing dog at the ASPCA shelter in the following days.
They count themselves as incredibly lucky.
Michael (pictures below) and his mother, along with his cat and dog, rode it out in the bathtub. He could think of nothing better to say than "Oh God Oh God Oh God" as he tried to hold himself, his mother, and his panicking dog in the tub as the storm tried to tear their roof off. His mother simply repeated the Lord's Prayer over and over again. She told me later she was "too scared to have a heart attack."
Their house is still mostly standing, although to what extent it can be salvaged is up in the air. And they count themselves as incredibly lucky.
At the last count, 183 people were not so lucky.
In the five days I spent in Joplin, there were no shortage of stories, both of the lucky and unlucky kind.
The manager of the Pizza Hut who ushered everyone into the walk-in freezer for safety...the tornado ripped him and the door out into the deadly storm. Everyone else was safe.
The man who stopped by the church parking lot for food, and told the story of his brother's death. His brother was a storm chaser, on the phone with his mother when the storm hit. He was on his balcony trying to spot the storm, and his last words before his phone went dead were that he couldn't see the tornado, just a wall of rain.
Many stories you will have heard in other places. The remains of the Home Depot, for example, is one of the most horrible things I've ever seen, and most people aren't allowed anywhere close to it. But even the distance I saw it at was enough.
- Another man stopping by for food who was picked up and carried a quarter mile by the storm, and set down four or five blocks from his house without a scratch on him.
- Marta, in from California Tuesday to take care of her daughter who'd been working in a Mexican restaurant when the storm hit. It was over a full day before Marta knew what had happened to her daughter, a full day of waiting and fearing.
- A mid-sized sedan picked up and slammed into a power pole hard enough to bend the car in half.
- A Hummer, an H3 from the look of it, thrown into the middle of the wreckage of a doctor's office across the street from the hospital.
- An old black lab mix, Indigo, thrown with her doghouse through the wall and into the garage. She's a bit shocked, but without a scratch.
- Family after family emerging to find their neighborhood demolished, and spray painting their survival on the side of their houses.
- People canvasing the streets, asking volunteer work crews if anyone knows what happened to the old man who lived two doors down or the woman from across the street who has no other surviving relatives.
- A volunteer breaking down into tears when she finds a baby's birthday picture in the yard of a house, blown from who knows where, the owner unidentifiable.
- A group of men with chainsaws who tried to charge an elderly woman $1000 to cut up a tree in her yard that was already down...while volunteers with chainsaws are doing the same and more for free all across town.
- Pickup after pickup and car after car rolling down the streets, young men and women in the beds and out of the trunks offering ice cold water and hot food to volunteers and homeowners alike, standing on the roadsides holding out bottles of water to passing traffic.
- Survivors standing at the entrance to a supply distribution tent, frozen in place at the prospect of starting to rebuild their lives from the piles of donated items--where do you start when you need to replace everything?
- A house painter who simply said to his clients that he would be gone for a month, and drove to Joplin to organize volunteers for Samaritan's Purse.
- A local mechanic who has been towing wrecked cars out of yards and destroyed houses for 'whatever you can pay'.
I was only in town for five days, but it was already apparent that Joplin will be rebuilding for years. It was also apparent that most of the wonderful people in that community were going to do their best to not let people fall through the cracks. The local radio station is inundated with calls both offering and requesting help, and the reports are that all missing persons have been found.
In the end, the death toll stands at 138 people, making the Joplin F5 the deadliest tornado in the United States since 1947, and the eighth deadliest in US history.
If you want to help, there are many resources available, including Samaritan's Purse, Forest Park Baptist Church, and the City of Joplin's Tornado Information Website.
Note: the needs of a community after a disaster like this are ever-changing. Please contact an organization first before sending material goods. Receiving unneeded goods, even with the best of intentions, can actually hamper a relief organization's ability to do their work.