Gary Rose introduced me to his first rebuilding customers: Everett and Eileen Wallace, a couple in their early seventies. Everett is retired from a job with a petroleum products distributor, but Eileen still works cleaning houses ("Why should I quit?" she asks). One of her customers is Gary Rose.
When the tornado came, Eileen was on the phone with her sister in California. "I said to my sister, ‘Well, the sirens are going off,’ and I walked out around the garden outside. And she said, ‘Well, if it’s gonna storm, you don’t need to be on the phone to me.’ And I went back inside and said, ‘Okay, if I don’t get blowed away I’ll give you a call back.’ Little did I know."
She walked out into the front yard and looked to the west. "I didn’t see anything that looked suspicious," she said. "Nothing. I walked back inside and sat down and the dog jumped in my lap. Everett was at the front window. And I said, ‘Well that train didn’t blow the whistle at 20th Street.’ And then, I could see shingles blowing off the house. I said, ‘And there are shingles blowing off the house!’ Everett was at the front door by then, and he shut it, and he said, ‘It’s a tornado.’"
Thinking Eileen had gone into the kitchen, Everett went after her. The windows broke. Everett dived into the laundry closet and covered himself with a pile of laundry. But Eileen hadn’t moved. "I thought, ‘If I get up, it’s liable to just suck me up with it. Or I’ll get hit by something, or stabbed by something.’ And I just sat there and prayed," she said. She held the dog, Gus, tightly and tried to cover his eyes. "I had my eyes shut — I didn’t want all of that in my eyes. But I know he had his eyes open."
After the storm passed, the living room was open to the sky. "Right next to my chair was an air conditioner compressor," said Eileen. The heavy chunk of metal had missed Eileen by about a foot — the margin between life and death. "My roof was gone, the garage was all gone. I had a beauty shop on the northeast end of the house by the garage — there was nothing left at that end of the house at all. It was gone."
Eileen was covered with insulation and dust. She had bruises on one arm and a goose-egg swelling on the back of her neck. Eileen and Everett walked to a triage center at the corner of 20th and Connecticut. "We were both barefoot," said Everett. "Suddenly you’re like a street person — everything you owned is gone."
"The knot on my neck made me sick at my stomach," Eileen said, "so they thought I should go to the hospital. And a man in a yellow truck with sirens and lights took me there." Eileen sat in a chair at the Freeman Hospital emergency room from 8 PM until midnight.
Next to Eileen was a woman in a wheelchair. "They had hooked an IV up to her. And she had blood all over her face, in her hair, and running all the way down her shirt," said Eileen. "She had no shoes on. She had done something to her foot. She and her husband were at St. John’s parking lot when the tornado hit, and he was trying to get her out of the car. And she said a roof hit him and knocked him to the ground. And she said, ‘I have no idea where he is.’"
"From the emergency room entrance all the way down to MacIntosh Road and all the way back to 32nd Street was nothing but ambulances," said Eileen. "And when one left, they just pulled forward, and more just kept coming. There were so many people, so bad off, that when Everett got there about midnight, I said, ‘I’m gonna go home.’" The Wallaces went to stay at a house owned by a friend in nearby Neosho.
They went to see Gary Rose two weeks after the tornado, in the middle of June. Eileen told Everett, "Gary is the only builder I know. I trust Gary. I know what kind of house he builds, and I know he’s not going to leave town."
I met the Wallaces at their brand-new one-story house in the same neighborhood where Meri Stewart used to live, near the vacant site where Dillon’s grocery once stood. Everett took me on a tour, showing the master bedroom and bath, guest bedroom, guest bath, kitchen and dining room, walk-in closets, and garage.
The Everetts’s old house was insured for $137,000 face value, but they had replacement coverage on top of that — up to 150% of the face value. After working and saving all their lives, they could pay cash for the rebuilding work. "But you got to spend more than your insurance in order to get all your insurance money back," said Everett. "That’s why this house is the way it is. If I didn’t have to do that, I wouldn’t have a house this big. My wife and I don’t need it."
Their brand-new house is a nice piece of work. Would Everett and Eileen go back to the way things used to be, I asked them? "In a heartbeat," said Everett. "I wouldn’t think twice about it." They paid less than $9,000 for their old house when they bought it, more than 40 years ago. Over the years they had added rooms, a bathroom, built-in cabinets. "I had two nice outbuildings, a nice garden, a place fenced in for Gus to play," said Everett. "I was happy with it like it was." "And it doesn’t take but a minute for it to all go away," said Eileen.
"We’re just thankful we weren’t killed," said Everett. "All three of us made it."
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Joplin, MO.