Where I come from, the Midwestern plains between the Appalachians and the Rockies, we watch funnel clouds touch down on the plains every spring. That’s why they call it Tornado Alley. In and around Joplin, Mo.—where I grew up, where I played soccer, where I graduated from high school—tornadoes are a raw, unmerciful fact of life. Which, I suppose, is why I wasn’t all that concerned when I got the first text message.
“Your family ok? Joplin area got hit hard.” I’m sure it’s fine. Something different gets torn up around here every year.
But about 29 messages later it was clear that this was unlike anything my town had ever seen. On Sunday, an EF5 twister—the only one in Missouri’s history, with winds greater than 200 mph—bulldozed Joplin into a domestic war zone. It cut a swath down Rangeline Road, the town’s Michigan Avenue. Complete chaos. Trees snapped off like toothpicks. Cars wrapped around telephone poles. A helicopter crumpled and tossed, its blades sheared off. Whole city blocks just…gone. Jagged horizon for miles.
In 2008, another tornado rolled through Picher, Okla., about 25 miles southwest of Joplin. I was working for Joplin’s newspaper, the Globe, and my editor sent me to visit a woman who had lost her son. They couldn’t reach her by phone, so they told me, a 19-year-old cub reporter, to knock on her door, look her in the eyes and ask her about her dead child.
The young man, Samuel, had just returned from active duty as a military policeman in South Korea. He and his new bride got caught in the storm on their way to dinner. They were 20 and 19 respectively, and they left behind an 8-month-old son. They were found on Mother’s Day.
Now, with 122 dead (as of Tuesday), 700 injured and some 1,500 missing, there are Samuels everywhere.
Like Will Norton, a young man who went to my high school. His father watched from the passenger seat as the seat belt snapped off his son, and Will was torn through the sun roof of their SUV. He’s still missing.
More text messages have pinged my phone in the past few days, with the threat that a new cyclone is on its way to rip another streak through the city.
“I can’t even count how many people I know that lost everything.”
“It’s like we were in a horror movie…”
“I feel so guilty having a place to come home to. That side of Joplin is just gone.”
“I’m scared to even be in my house.”
“Another one’s supposed to hit at 5.”
But no matter what happens, the mayor of our small city put it this way: “We’re not going to let some little tornado kick our ass.” Even if it was an EF5.
It took only minutes for a third of my hometown to vanish, and it may take years for it to re-appear. But if there’s anything more certain than a tornado in the Midwestern spring, it’s that Joplin will be back.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The YouTube video was made by a survivor as the tornado hit a gas station where about 20 people had taken refuge from the storm. Fortunately our writer, Seth Putnam, was not there. Follow the link to see the devastation the next morning, and how they survived.