Moments after a category EF5 tornado turned the heart of Joplin’s residential district into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, bloodied, wet and tired survivors began to emerge from the wreckage and take stock of a new reality.
Moments after a category EF4 tornado turned the heart of Joplin’s residential district into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, bloodied, wet and tired survivors began to emerge from the wreckage and take stock of a new reality.
Many who emerged from the rubble of homes around 20th Street and Wisconsin Avenue bore some kind of injury, but they rushed to help others who were trapped in the rubble of churches and apartments in the area.
This remarkable storms sound, a powerful roar that permeated everything for a few brief moments, was a theme that ran through most residents’ tails of survival.
Larry Thomas emerged from the rubble that was the Missouri Place Apartments remarkably uninjured, but he knew his neighbors were not so lucky.
“There’s some fatalities back there,” Thomas said. “I suspect that the woman across the hall from me stayed in her apartment thinking she was going to be safe and it’s gone, too.”
Thomas said the roar was the first thing that got his attention.
“I opened my bedroom window and looked in this direction and heard the freight train coming,” Thomas said. “I was in the hallway and we’ve got glass doors on both ends and it just busted the windows out. The wind shoved me into a vacant apartment. It forced the door open into a vacant apartment and I got into the kitchen which is a narrow little place and I hunkered down. I’ve lost a lot of property in there, but I came out of it — let me see, do I have any scrapes? Not really. I have mud on me. I’m alive.”
As he walked on Wisconsin Avenue, looking for the home of one of his professors, Thomas, who is also vice chair of the homeless coalition for Jasper and Newton counties, wondered about his future.
“My desktop and my laptop are gone and I’m due to start school in two weeks,” Thomas said. “At Pitt State, I have one summer class and this fall I have my practicum and then I’ve got my bachelors degree. I don’t have transportation to get there now, it’s trashed.”
Victims to rescuers
All over the neighborhood south of 20th Street and east of the shattered Joplin High School, victims became rescuers as they struggled to deal with the loss of homes and loved ones.
Several people took crowbars and their bare hands, anything, they could find to rip into a small white car on the side of Wisconsin Avenue and pull two older women out of it.
A man covered in blood and with a swollen face watched and tried to help the rescuers get his wife and her mother out of the car.
The man said the three were headed for their home in the 2900 block of Wisconsin Avenue, but they didn’t make it and rode out the tornado in their small white Toyota.
“I got hit in the face by a two-by-four, or that’s what it felt like,” the man said. “I lifted my head up for a second when the wind started pushing the car and something hit me.”
With the doors jammed, the man’s wife and her 82-year-old mother were trapped in the car. Both were covered in blood from cuts and scrapes. Debris covered the car, some had come through the windows and pummeled the three occupants.
Finally rescuers were able to pry open the drivers side door.
As that was happening, others were yelling for anyone who could to run to the nearby Mormon Church on Indiana Street to help pull trapped people out of that flattened building.
'I'm thankful I'm still alive'
Edward Allen was one of many survivors who dove for their bathroom and rode out Sunday’s storm that tore his home at 2308 Illinois Ave. to pieces.
“The last I saw on the TV, it was going off and on, and they said you hit cover,” Allen said. “If you can still hear us, take cover. So I ran in the bathroom and all I had in there was one of those mats, the big fuzzy one, and I put over my head. There are some two-bys fell right there beside me.”
Allen said the storm seemed to last a lifetime.
“I knew that it was a tornado and it was a-coming, and I was just wondering when it was going to stop,” he said. “The bathroom was kind of in the middle of the house, that’s what they recommend. It did work because these other places and my place are just gone.”
Once the winds died down, Allen, who lived by himself, faced another challenge — hail the size of golf balls started falling on his suddenly-exposed bathroom.
“After it hit, the top of my bathroom was gone,” he said. “I went to another room because it began to hail real bad, so I got in the other bathroom and other closet and that area still had kind of a cover over it, so I got in there. I’m not hurt, I don’t know why.”
As he walked around with shirts tied around his neck, Allen was in shock, but he was also thankful.
“I look up and say, God I’m thankful I’m still alive,” he said. “That’s what you can do.”
Not just another storm
Ron Smith’s pickup was battered, likely beyond repair, but for a while on Sunday it served as shelter for him and his wife, Ellen, and their two dogs, Buddy and Buffy, after the tornado shattered their home at 2402 Illinois Ave.
Ron and Ellen Smith took cover with their two dogs in their bathroom as the winds of up to 195 miles per hour ripped their home apart.
“There was a big roar,” Ellen Smith said. “We were in the dining room and the TV went out and I heard that roar toward the west and there was some kind of banging all of a sudden. We grabbed the dogs and headed to the bathroom.”
At first Ron dismissed the warnings on television, but he soon changed his mind.
“I was sitting in the dining room watching TV thinking, oh, it’s just another damn storm,” Ron Smith said. “She came in and said did you hear that roar, and I started to hear it. We barely made it to the bathroom in the hall with the dogs.”
“The way that roar sounded and the shaking of the doors and the walls, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ellen Smith continued. “I’ve been through tornados, but they were small ones in Wisconsin.”
The destruction of their home and its contents was dire, but their situation was made even more serious because of a decision the two made just a few weeks ago out of economic necessity.
“I lost my job a few months ago and we had to cancel the insurance on the house last month,” Ron Smith said. “I couldn’t afford it, it was $400 a months. We’ve got probably a good $50,000 or $60,000 worth of furniture in there and it’s all ruined.”
The two were upbeat about their situation as they looked around at the devastation that surrounded them.
As they sat, their daughter, Joanna, and granddaughter, Hannah, fought their way through the rubble-strewn streets to reach them.
Daughter and granddaughter broke down emotionally as they held Ron and Ellen.
“We didn’t hear about this until 30 minutes after, and they said the Joplin school is gone,” Joanna said. “We had to get over here, we had to. I didn’t care how long it took us. It took us an hour to get here from the mall. We went down one road and had to turn around, down another road and they said it was blocked. The closer I got here, the more damage you could see.
“We’re getting the hell out of here. We’ve got to get out of here. Now where are you going to stay, you all are going to have to come to my place now.”