The most difficult drive of my life took place the last week of May, It was a trip I didn't want to make,
one I put off for as long as possible, one I couldn't avoid. So I steeled myself for what I already knew
from still photos and first hand reports would be the worst thing I'd ever seen. You guys know me; I'm
the one who always manages to cope with whatever life throws my way. I told myself that I could
handle this, too.
For years we've all joked about my small home town in the foothills of the Ozark Plateau, Little
DooDah, without most of you actually knowing where that is. Joplin is DooDah and Webb City is
Little DooDah. Webb City is north of Joplin. The two towns share several miles of boundaries. You
can literally step out of one into the other. Joplin is the commercial hub of this region as well as the
primary medical center between Springfield to the northeast and Tulsa to the southwest. So even
though Joplin has a population of a little over 50,000, it is common for there to be 300,000 people in
town and there have been peaks of 400,000 depending on the season, day of the week and time of day.
People from communities in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, in town working or shopping.
Joplin is also a major trucking center, one of the largest in the nation. This is due it its location on old
Route 66, Interstate 44, which runs east to west, and Highway 71, which runs north to south. I'm telling
you this because I want you to understand that even though DooDah and Little DooDah are separate
political subdivisions with friendly rivalries, we are part of the same community. An extended family,
so to speak. Most Webb City residents work in Joplin. We all have friends and relatives there.
Sunday afternoon, May 22, 2011, was unsettled but no different than many spring afternoons. A storm
system was building up to our west with the possibility of severe thunderstorms, some producing hail
and rotation. Again, nothing unusual. This region is unfortunately prone to severe weather including
tornadoes, especially in the spring, most especially in May. Almost all of this bad weather comes to us
from the west/southwest, meaning Kansas and Oklahoma. When weather advisories are issued, we pay
attention but don't panic. Since 2011 has been an especially bad year for tornadoes and with Tuscaloosa
fresh in our memories, we paid a little more attention than usual.
Saturday had been especially busy. I had hosted a spring tea at the library with all the baking and
sandwich making that entailed. Then I had my mother for our regular Sunday lunch. By five o'clock I
had deposited her safely at her home and was back at mine looking forward to a quiet evening with the
dogs and an early bedtime. I was watching a baseball game, no surprise there, when the storm sirens
The library is always opened as a storm shelter when the sirens go off, but for several years now
the police have opened it for me during hours that we aren't open. Before that it was my job to drive
through the storm to open the building. The board finally decided that this shouldn't be part of my job
I did what ninety percent of people do when the sirens sound. I switched the channel to a local station
then went to look outside. It was a bit blustery and the sky to the southwest had sort of a greenish cast.
I decided to stay home with the dogs. I telephoned my mother and told her to get across the street to
the church basement. Then I shut the wooden blinds at my large picture window, which faces west,
made sure the windows were all closed, closed interior doors and made myself a cozy little spot in
an inside hallway, away from any flying glass. At my house, that's the best I can do. I have a small
mattress and lots of quilts to cover myself, the dogs and cat.
What I normally do is watch the radar and then if it starts getting scary I head for my safe spot. The
dogs love for me to sit there in the floor. They always gather around and think it's great fun. Well, the
pups do. Spice, the mother dog, is very sensitive to storms and tends to freak out and wants held. This
Sunday the wind picked up and it started to rain and hail. There was a lot of hail. Some of it was golf
ball-sized. The noise from the hail caused Spice to totally panic. Above the hail, I could hear the wind.
I knew that this time something was close.
Things cleared off and the sky lightened again. I later learned that this wasn't the same cell that hit
Joplin. This one passed directly over my house, but was high enough not to do any damage. I had a
bit of deadwood from a tall tree in the back come down. I thought how lucky we were and that we'd
dodged a bullet. I went outside to pick up some of the hailstones, so I could report their size. The sky
in the southwest was still funny looking. I heard what sounded like the sirens in Joplin going off. It's
sometimes possible to hear them from here, when it's very still, but that is unusual and I wasn't sure
that's what it was.
It started to rain again, so I stepped back inside my screened porch. What I clearly heard was thunder.
At least that's what I thought it was. It was a low, distant rumbling. We've all heard this sort of
thunder. But it didn't stop like it normally does. The rain increased but this odd thunder could be heard
through the rain. It went on and on. To say that it was eerie would be an understatement. I now know
that what I was hearing was the tornado going through Joplin.
When I got back inside the first thing I noticed was that the TV was off. I have my land line telephone,
Internet and television all through our local cable company. All three were dead. I tried to call my
mother and Syn with my cell phone but couldn't get a signal. I put on the radio. Thank goodness for
The initial reports were bad but nothing to compare with the reality of the situation. It was a growing
nightmare. They started reporting the boundaries of the tornado's path. The area was huge. I thought
they must have gotten it wrong. The first estimate of deaths was 89. St. John's Hospital had taken
a direct hit. Freeman Hospital, on the south edge of the tornado's path suffered only minor damage.
Miles east of the hospitals several large businesses were little more than rubble. Schools were gone.
Churches were destroyed. Small businesses had literally vanished. As each announcement was made,
I'd mentally put a pin in a map of Joplin. I think that's when it started sinking in just how horrific it
Monday morning at the library I started getting personal reports from survivors and rescue workers.
The Webb City Public Works Department and EMS personnel had responded within an hour and
had worked all night. And they stayed until Americorp came in and took over. Then they went to
a small town just east of Joplin that is also adjacent and took a direct hit and worked there until the
federal crews made it there. All of the surrounding communities responded and pitched it. This was
no surprise. But we had crews from many areas outside the immediate area within just a few hours.
Kansas City sent a large number of men and equipment. One of their workers became a fatality when
he was struck by lightning.
The library's ISP is the same cable company I have at home, so we were down there, too. But I had
my land line telephones and started trying to contact people as soon as I learned that the story had gone
nationwide. I got the same message over and over. All circuits are busy, all circuits are busy. I learned
that I could call Arizona and Canada but couldn't make local calls. The cable company is located on the
far south side of the storm's path. Their building was standing, but they and the electric company had to find a way to get through the rubble, put up poles, string cable and lay fiber. Friday evening Webb
City came back on line. Everything considered, I think they did a great job of restoring service.
I knew that it was important for me to see the damage first hand. I waited a few days for two reasons.
Most importantly I didn't want to be in the way. The rescue personnel had a hard enough time without
rubberneckers clogging up what few streets were still passable. And I'd heard enough horror stories to
wish I didn't have to see it at all. But I finally went. I thought I knew what to expect.
Unless you've been living under a rock, I'm sure you've seen photos or video footage of the damage.
This was the worst single tornado to hit the US in 60 years. It got a lot of press and air time. What
the stills and video don't convey is the scope of the destruction. Everything within a swathe a half to
three quarters of a mile wide and nearly twelve miles long is either rubble or completely gone. 8,000
residences. 200 businesses. A third of the population homeless. There are no landmarks, no trees, no
street signs. These are neighborhoods I've known and navigated my entire life, and there was a point
at which I had no idea where I was. It was surreal. You could see the damaged hospital which still
has parts of five floors standing for miles because everything else was flattened, but that is the sole
landmark. The two top floors were blown away.
Going through the area that first time was an emotional roller coaster. It began with disbelief. It was
like watching a movie or something. It didn't seem real. I think that was caused by the disorientation,
the lack of landmarks. Some of the streets were still impassable. But it was real, much too real. And it
just went on and on, block after block, mile after mile. At one point I could barely see to drive through
tears. Then my old, well-worn coping mechanism kicked in and I started developing some detachment.
Stop blubbering, I told myself, and find a way to help. I went through the four Ds within the matter of
an hour. Disbelief, disorientation, despair and finally detachment. Astonishing. It was like a grieving
process at breakneck speed, leaving me with a fifth D, a determination to find a way to help the victims
through this awful ordeal.
Think of the photos of piles of brick, stone, and twisted steel. Think of trees splintering and of houses
exploding. And now imagine what this same force does to human flesh. The death toll currently
stands at 157. Over 1500 people reported injuries. At least half of these were serious enough to require
hospitalization. I'm not going to even try to report all of the grizzly stories. Perhaps when time has
created some more distance I'll be able to write about it all in greater depth.
There are hundreds of stories:
- The Webb City man who worked frantically to get people at Home Depot to a safe location and
then was killed when the roof collapsed on top.
- The young man who lay on top of his wife in their bath tub to shield her from the storm and
died saving her life. She grew up next door to the library.
- The teenager, driving home from his Joplin High School graduation, which had ended shortly
before the storm hit. He was sucked out of the car and was found several days later floating in a
pond miles away. He was the nephew of a good friend.
- The six year old girl who wasn't found for days and whose body looked like it had been riddled
with machine gun fire. Her mother used to live down the street from me.
- The elderly man trapped in his basement who could hear looters going through his possessions.
Looters who heard him pleading for help but said nothing until caught by the police. He was a
friend of my late husband.
- One of my trustees who was nearly sucked out of St. John's Hospital and who looked like he'd been beaten with a baseball bat.
- Another man, one who spent hours and hours at the library trying to repair our HVAC control
system, a patient at the hospital, who was so badly injured he later died.
- The son of my board president who missed being killed by minutes when he left his law office
to go play a computer game with his nephew in another part of town. His office vanished.
- The daughter of a friend who was on duty in the ER at Freeman Hospital and who came home
soaked in the blood of the injured and dying.
- The doctor who did emergency surgical procedures on standing patients while holding a
flashlight between his teeth.
- The neighborhood watch that caught a looter and duct taped him to a tree until they could call
- The make-shift morgues in refrigerated trucks with random body parts waiting identification.
- The police cordon around the destroyed Academy Sports store, waiting for a truck to arrive to
remove the guns and ammunition that could be seen scattered throughout the debris.
- The way the continuing weather hampered the rescue operation and the stories of those men and
women who had to recover the bodies of their neighbors and friends.
- The memorial service attended by President Obama complete with the Westboro Baptist
Church's attempted presence. I say attempted because the Patriot Guard met them, completely
surrounded them and made sure they didn't disrupt the memorial service.
- The thousands of displaced pets and the temporary animal shelters needed to house them as
they were recovered.
- The thousands of volunteers working hundreds of thousands of hours to date trying to clean up
the mess so people can rebuild. Add in the millions of dollars of donations for the survivors to
help them get back on their feet. The generosity and goodness of people who have come from
hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to help strangers.
The recovery is well under way, but it will take years. The city imposed a 60 day moratorium on
issuing building permits to enable the debris removal to continue unhindered by extra traffic from
builders. Many residents have their lots cleared and plans ready, just waiting for the permits. It's
fantastic. The landfills in the region are making a fortune. Schools are planning to reopen, as are many
businesses. This is especially good news since many people are without jobs because their job sites no
longer exist. The high school will open in the old Venture store at the mall. Near-by school districts,
like Webb City, are expecting an influx of displaced students. We don't know for sure what kind of
strain it will place on our facilities.
There is still a very serious housing shortage. Housing prices and rental rates have soared due to the
enormous demand. FEMA is bringing in temporary housing, but this is not going to meet the needs.
People who have been on the fence about selling their property are now doing so since they can get
above market value. Vultures or just smart businessmen? I'll let you decide that.
The bottom line is that Joplin will never be the same. But it will survive and emerge stronger. That's
the way people are in this part of the country. We are a resilient bunch. We rebuilt and thrived after
the Civil War. We survived the closing of the mines that drove the region's economy for so long. And
we'll survive this.