Eight years ago today, a third of my town was wiped away by a tornado. “Wiped away” probably isn’t the best wording, though; “chewed up and spat out” fits better. On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado roared into the southwest edge of Joplin and carved an arc up through the heart of our community before churning off to the east where it dropped memorabilia from its trip in fields and yards almost 70 miles away. This week, like many other third weeks of May since the tornado, has resurrected memories of that fateful Sunday evening simply because we are squarely situated in tornado season, even if Joplin isn’t technically in the middle of tornado alley. My family sat around the TV on Monday night of this week, watching weather alerts every few minutes as ominous cells manifested on the radar, doing their centuries’ old dance from southwest to northeast. Some smaller tornadoes wreaked havoc on roofs and trees in communities nearby, but Joplin was spared this time.
That week in 2011 exists in a space in my memory that is an odd mix of crystal clear images and blurred recollections, accompanied by emotions such as fear, mourning, frustration, and pride. So much changed for all of us in Joplin because of that one storm. The numbers give a partial picture of those changes: 7,000 homes destroyed, 500 businesses lost, and 161 people killed. But change is best described in narrative, and those of us who were here that day have lots of stories to tell.
My family’s story originates from the fringe of the tornado’s path where our status as “unharmed” would draw us in a unique way into the heart of the destruction. We were residence directors for a small Christian college that sits on the north end of town. We had plans to celebrate my husband’s birthday that evening; the dorm had just closed the day before and we could have free reign of the large dorm lobby that our tiny apartment was attached to. But as the party time approached, so did the storms, with large, dark clouds bubbling up in the west. We watched the wind kick up, and when things started looking bad, my husband suggested maybe we should head to the basement at about the same time we heard the tornado sirens.
I’ve spent much of my life in the Midwest, so heading to storm shelters is nothing new to me. But that 30 minute stint in the basement of the dorm felt different. Even though we were two miles from the tornado, I have never seen the sky go black like that in the middle of the day. We emerged from the basement to find leaves and small branches from the trees littering the lawn around the dorm. Unsure of what exactly had happened, we went up to the television in our living room but couldn’t get any reception. We realized something was up, and we pulled out a radio, scanning for the local talk radio station, and listened in horror as the newscaster started listing off some of the locations in town that he knew had been hit. One of the intersections he listed had an apartment complex that a few of the students from the college had just moved into for the summer. (The birthday party was set aside; it was much, much later that evening that my husband and I would eat his cake standing over the sink, both of us in shock and speaking in half sentences to each other.)
“I’m going to check on them,” my husband told me as he laced up his hiking boots and threw some supplies into his pickup. I sat at the kitchen table, frozen with the horrific realization that all the places being mentioned on the radio spanned the breadth of the city. I stuck an imaginary pin in my mental map of Joplin every time the newscaster listed out another place with tornado damage. But even then, I was thinking that the tornado must have performed a crazy, drunken dance, stepping down in random places as it stumbled across town. I tried calling my husband to let him know that the damage must be pretty extensive. My call didn’t go through though. My anxiety spiked.
Several minutes later, he called me. “I had to drive through front yards to get down here, Jess. You can’t even imagine the damage. There are trees everywhere, power lines down all over. The further south you go, the worse it gets. I’m gonna try to keep going til I can get to 20th Street.” And that was it. That brief call was a miracle; the cell phone towers damaged in the storm meant that cell service was spotty to nonexistent. The time between that call and his arrival back at the dorm was a blur. Was it an hour? Two hours? I don’t remember. All I remember is he pulled up and several college kids spilled out of the pickup, disheveled and shaking. He had managed to find these kids when he got to the apartment complex, but not the two of them that he had been specifically looking for. Equally grim was his report about what he saw.
“After driving through all the yards and side streets, I was so disoriented. There weren’t any street signs anywhere. I had no clue where I was. I stopped a cop to ask him where 20th and Connecticut was. He told me I was standing on it. There wasn’t anything there but piles of rubble,” his eyes were wide as he relayed this to me. Each corner of this intersection had something major on it: a credit union, an apartment complex, a bank, and some duplexes. He told me he had searched for the two girls but couldn’t find them anywhere and so had managed to pick up other college students who recognized him across the intersection.
I remember busying myself with the college kids, getting them food and drinks as we continued to try to make contact with the two girls and make a list of everyone else we knew in the tornado’s path. Because that much had become clear by that point: the tornado had not just touched down in a few places. It had bulldozed a path a mile-wide through the middle of town.
And this is where my memory goes fuzzy again. I remember the next few days as a jumble of tangled snapshots. We eventually made contact later that night with the two girls we had been looking for. One of them came back to the dorm with her parents who had come to town from Georgia simply to help her move into that now flattened apartment. We put them up in the dorm because we had lots of vacant rooms, and that began the steady stream of visitors who would occupy the dorm for the rest of the summer. By the next day we were housing several displaced families who either worked for the college or who were connected to the college through family or friends.
My husband quickly got involved in a distribution center at our church, while I stayed behind to operate the brand new B&B we had acquired. I bounced between the TV with reports about the damage; the laundry room where we did mountains of laundry for the families staying in the dorm; and the kitchen because no matter the crisis, people still have to eat and it’s always been a way I feel like I can contribute. I had endless conversations that week—with the families who needed to talk about what they had experienced, with friends who called because we all craved connection that week as we learned more and more of the grim details of the destruction, with college students who were desperate to know of the condition of their college and the town they had just left, and with the school officials who realized that our quiet-during-the-summer campus could be a potential boon to a community that would need an army of volunteers to put it back together.
Story upon story emerged from the tornado zone. There were strangers who pitched in to help with search and rescue. Neighbors with chainsaws who helped clear trees from streets. Dozens of first responders from communities all around us who transported those needing medical help. Local congregations that opened up their facilities in a variety of ways for those affected by the storm.
And the volunteers. From as far away as the coasts to all the places in between. In the weeks following the storm, tens of thousands of volunteers would pour into Joplin to assist with the debris removal and recovery. My family’s role in our city’s recovery would be to house some of those volunteers. The college would eventually set up a housing system that utilized the dormitories on campus for groups assisting with recovery. Some of the groups were church groups, other groups were utility workers sent from states far away to help restore the city’s infrastructure, and other groups were civic-minded volunteers who just wanted to help.
That summer was one of the biggest challenges I faced in my role as a residence director. It stretched our family in ways we couldn’t have imagined and didn’t always appreciate. But it also created bonds and helped contribute to the sense that we were all in it together, whether we had lost a home or loved one or we came through relatively unscathed. I was proud of us as a town—the work we did and the way everyone pitched in. It meant that the devastating losses were not the end of Joplin’s story. Instead, hope, perseverance, selflessness, sacrifice, unity, and goodness were hallmarks of this town’s recovery.