Joplin, MO F5 Tornado (2011)

*Photos follow the story. 

I never lived in Joplin, Missouri. Nor had I really stopped there before May 28, 2011. But I felt compelled to stop, six days after the deadly tornado, to see for myself what the news was reporting.

Every year I would travel to Lubbock, Texas for a two-week seminar related to my doctoral studies. I went through Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma in order to get to Texas. I would find myself stopping in familiar places for food, lodging, gas, and souvenirs. Joplin is located on the border with Oklahoma. From there I knew Tulsa was just over an hour away and so was a nice comfortable pillow for my head. That’s how I knew Joplin. So when I heard that city was hit by an F5 tornado on May 22nd, my birthday nonetheless, I was shocked.

On my way home, a week after the tornado, I decided to stop in Joplin and take photos. I left I-44 on Exit 6 – Main Street, Joplin. I traveled north for a dozen blocks or so. It looked normal, like any Main Street in any city. I started to see roof tiles torn off, branches down, and glass windows blown out – sure signs of fringe destruction.  Then, as if I crossed a battle line, the full destruction of the tornado became obvious.

Quickly, I found an area to park in what I found out was Garvin Park. I took my camera out and began walking around. Cars were totaled. The shell of the local McDonald’s was standing but not much else. Wires were down. Trees were split in half. A guitar was hanging out a window. It wasn’t real; it was surreal.

I made my way into a local neighborhood, looking at the devastation through my camera’s eye piece. I gently clicked the shutter, recording what I saw. Some houses were standing – those were the lucky ones. They were repairing broken windows and cutting up large trees that had made their way into unwanted places. But this wasn’t the norm. The norm was pure destruction.

I quickly learned that when a house was searched for survivors it was marked with an X, usually in a neon color: orange or purple. This stood out. But that wasn’t the only sign put on houses. People were writing down street markers (27th is East, Virginia is North), notes of thanks (thank you helpers), and notes for the local community (they are ok).

I talked to one gentleman sitting in a chair outside of a house. He was older, perhaps in his 70s, and holding a cane. A very kind man, congenial with a smile on his face. We chatted for a bit, telling me that he was the brother of the homeowner. The brother survived by riding out the storm in a bathtub. He also told me about the orange Xs on the house.

There were a slew of official inspectors and insurance agents in the neighborhoods, checking on the houses and doing paperwork. I walked past one house where several people were walking on what looked like the roof. A large tractor with chains attached to the house began pulling it down in order to prevent any undo accidents. The homeowner was standing next to me and couldn’t bear to watch. She turned away and left.

I next came to an older, larger home that was ripped apart however the back porch was habitable. By the house were two people grilling food for volunteers. An old dresser was used as a condiments stand. Next to them a group of people convened: search and rescue dogs with handlers. Luckily I didn’t hear about any loss, but nor did I hear about any rescues either.

Among the rubble, owners were searching for their valuables. An F5 tornado has winds of over 200 miles per hour. The logical person would conclude nothing really existed anymore. But this wasn’t logical, so people searched with heart more than logic. Blocks and blocks of homes, wiped away in minutes, were being searched with more heart than I thought existed.

As I continued to walk around, not really knowing where I was but not really caring either, I found symbols of hope in and amongst the rubble. Flags of all sorts flew: small ones, big ones, or shirts with flags on them. An angel statue was placed upon a bit of stone. It was as if owners were saying “we will survive; we will rebuild.” I walked by a house and saw volunteers come up to complete strangers, asking: “what can we do to help you?”

Not knowing where I was, but bound by time, I asked a stranger where the “park was by the McDonald’s.” He smiled and gave me directions. I thanked him and found my car, right where he told me it would be. That sense of politeness was alive and well in Joplin, even though homes and possessions were not.

I was about to put my camera away when I saw a boy – perhaps age 6 or 7 – run over and climb up onto one of the few untouched park objects. He had gloves on, so I can only assume he was working on a nearby house. He worked his way in and out of the object’s webbing, making his way to the top with a bit of effort. As he reached the top he looked around with wide eyes. He surveyed the damage to the city, saying “wow.” My thoughts exactly.

I spent maybe an hour in Joplin that day. A short time as compared to the volunteers I saw from all across the country. The photos I took show only a small portion of the damage to the city. Unreal damage. Surreal damage. Damage, nonetheless. But I like the spirit of the boy I saw, climbing in the park. He represents the motto of the city: “the Midwest at its very best.”