Picture this: You’re relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon about half past five, when you hear the sirens wail: tornado warning. You look to the west, but you don’t see a funnel cloud—just a towering black curtain across your field of view, like a big thunderstorm. You peer into the darkness. As the screen of rain pushes past you, the sky lightens. But then you hear the sound: a rumble, a roar, like an enormous freight train. Trees start to thrash around, shingles fly off a nearby roof, and you realize: “It’s a tornado. It’s a big tornado. It’s a—huge—tornado.”
Then your windows blow in.
You shout to your family, you dive into the closet, or the bathroom, or under the kitchen table. The roar doubles, and quadruples, and rises in pitch until it sounds like a giant locomotive and a jet engine at the same time—so loud that you can’t hear the sound of your house coming apart. But you can feel the floor shuddering, lifting, and dropping. You tremble and pray. The sheer terror goes on and on: five minutes ... 10 minutes? When will it end? And then the wind passes away, as suddenly as it came.
You crawl out from under the wreckage. The fragments of structure that just saved your life are all that is left. Your roof is gone. Your possessions are gone—blown away. In their place are the scrambled, shredded remnants of other people’s stuff, and bits of their houses. You have the clothes on your back—jeans? A bathrobe? You’re barefoot.
You look around—your neighbors’ homes are gone, too. The trees on your street are stripped and toppled; only the shattered stumps are left. For 10 blocks around you, everything is pulverized. You check yourself, your family, your pets: Are they alive? Are they hurt? There is no shelter; there are no lights. And it’s raining, and it’s hailing—ice-cold rain, and big, hard hail.
It’s eerily quiet. There is no sound of traffic. But you hear dozens of smoke alarms: beep, beep, beep ... ruptured gas lines are flaring into flame. And you hear neighbors, trapped or injured, crying for help—or just crying.
What do you do?
If you’re in Joplin, Mo., you do what Joplin did—what Joplin does. You get up and go to work.
The record-setting tornado that ripped through Joplin on May 22, 2011, left a mile-wide scar across the city. In Google satellite view, it’s a brown curve across the green landscape, like a giant Nike swoosh. Zoom in, and you can see blue tarps on roofs, and the splintered debris strewn across block after block. But the streets are already clear—and anyway, that satellite photo is a year old now; by mid-August, most of that mess was already pushed to the curb, snaffled up by giant FEMA grapples, dumped into monster trucks, and carted off to a landfill in Kansas.
The brown scar in the Google maps image is only a memory now—fresh and alive, for sure, but still, just a memory of last year. This year, there’s healing, and instead of tarps, there are fresh new roofs, and sprinkled among the bulldozed lots you’ll now find floors, frames, shells, brand-new houses. Drive down almost any street today, and you’ll hear hammers and saws. Next to a bare patch of gravel, you’ll see fresh sod. The splintered stumps are still around, but you see a lot of saplings too.
And when this writer traveled to Joplin this spring, the people I met there still cried—every one of them—but more often, they smiled.
The tornado scraped away the surface of Joplin. But underneath, there was more Joplin: heart and soul, muscle and bone. This is not the story of how an F-5 killer tornado crushed a town. This is the story of how an F-5 killer tornado could not crush this town.
Best Laid Plans
Crystal Harrington is the executive director of the Home Builders Association of Southwest Missouri (the HBA for Joplin and vicinity). On the day the tornado came, Crystal was working on her association’s top problem: the economy.
Hoping to persuade local business leaders to support home building in Joplin, she had commissioned an impact study by NAHB economist Elliot Eisenberg. Eisenberg was due to fly into Joplin Sunday evening. Harrington had lined up early morning interviews for him with local radio and TV stations, followed by breakfast with local builders. After a mid-morning press conference, lunch would be at the country club with all the local elected officials, including state representatives. After some brief down time in the afternoon, dinner would be with the full HBA membership.
“Elliot was going to make us look good,” says Harrington. “We scheduled all that for Monday, the 23rd of May.”
It was not to be.
On Sunday afternoon, Harrington was at her office taking care of last minute details. At 5 p.m., her husband Bob called: “You better turn your TV on, and watch the weather.” Then the sirens sounded. Harrington hid in the bathroom at the back of her office while the storm passed—a near miss.
The HBA office on 32nd Street was a mile south of the tornado’s track; Crystal’s husband, daughter, and grandson were at home, a mile or two north of it. “Usually it’s a six-minute commute from door to door,” she says. “It took me three hours to get home.”
North-south roads were all blocked. Taking a short-cut behind St. John’s Hospital on 26th Street, Harrington saw that the building’s windows were all blown out. Cars were blasted into jumbled heaps in the parking lots. Doctors and nurses were evacuating injured patients and staff, and trying to set up emergency operations outdoors.
She made her way west to Main Street and turned north. “That’s where I started to see paramedics trying to pull people out of cars, and people being loaded on pickup trucks at the hospital and carried to Memorial Hall where they had set up a triage station. I asked two ladies who were walking barefoot in the street, ‘Can I help you? Is there someplace I can take you?’ and they said, ‘No. There’s nowhere to go.’”
Nobody, Harrington realized, was going to come hear Eisenberg talk about the economy the next morning. “And I figured the hotel would probably give his room away. So many people were going to need shelter.” She got through to Matt Morrow, the HBA executive officer in Springfield, Mo., who had helped her arrange Eisenberg’s visit. “I said, ‘You gotta stop Elliot. Joplin has been hit by a really bad storm. We’re in trouble.’” Morrow said to her, “I’ll take care of Elliot. Do what you have to do.”
Back at her house, Harrington’s family was sitting in her blacked-out house, eating ice cream. They didn’t know about the tornado. “But pretty soon they came after my husband,” says Harrington. “He’s the director of facilities at the university, and he’s on the emergency preparedness team.” Bob Harrington went away to run a Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern State University. He would not sleep at home for days.
Bob’s previous job had been facilities manager at St. John’s Hospital. Over 30 years, he had overseen the construction of most of its buildings. The tornado took the 10-story hospital out—totaled it. The hulk is still there, but it’s no longer usable. It was several weeks, says Crystal, before Bob could make himself go look at it.
At the emergency operations center, Bob joined up with a team led by top city officials. “Our fire chief lost his home,” says Crystal. “He parked his wife and kids with family, said ‘Stay there,’ and he went to work, in 20 minutes. The director of public works crawled out of the rubble of his house with his wife, got her to his daughter’s house, and went to work. That’s what all these people did, they went to work.”