On May 22, 2011, an EF5 multiple vortex tornado, with winds peaking between 225 -250 miles per hour, touched down on Joplin, Missouri at 5:41 pm. It killed 153 people and injured another 990. It damaged or destroyed 8000 structures. It left behind $3 billion in rebuilding costs. It was the single deadliest tornado in the US since 1947.
My journey to Joplin all started as I was driving home from work one day and heard on CNN the story of 18 year old Will Norton who was missing from the storm. The story reported that Will was driving home with his father after having just received his high school diploma when the tornado struck and sucked him out the sunroof of his vehicle while his father desperately tried to hold onto him. I remember actually feeling phyiscally ill hearing this story, not even able to truly imagine the horror that young Will or his father must have been going through. Will’s father was terribly injured following the storm and Will Norton was missing. Over the next few days, I followed Will’s story on the news and on a Facebook page that his family started. His body was eventually found in a pond not far from his vehicle.
I kept telling my husband, Shawn that I really felt a need to go to Joplin and do something to help. Will Norton’s story was only one story and I knew by watching the news that there were many families that were also suffering following the storm. This was very much out of my comfort zone but I still felt compelled to go. I mentioned my desire to go to the attorneys in my firm and the next thing I know, they were all on board. My partner, Jennifer agreed to stay back to handle things at the office and cover a court appearance that had already been scheduled and our associates, Patrice Ray and Mike Rothrock were packed up and ready to fly out with me on June 10th.
We found our best route to Joplin was by flying into Tulsa, Oklahoma. We were not able to get a hotel anywhere close to Joplin and settled for a hotel in the small town of Vinita, OK which was about 55 miles outside of Joplin. We found several volunteer opportunities on the United Way’s website and ultimately decided to help with debris cleanup. We drove into Joplin on Saturday morning with instructions to go to Missouri Southern State University which was the coordination site of all volunteers working under AmeriCorps.
On the drive through the Joplin business district, we saw several businesses that had been hit by the tornado. In a parking lot near the university’s stadium, tents were setup for us to register to volunteer. After the requisite releases were signed, we were given an orange wrist tag to wear and loaded onto a school bus. We were given respirator masks, bottled water, work gloves (although we had brought our own) and sleeves to put over our arms to protect us from fiberglass. We then were driven to a drop site in town where we were met by crew leaders from AmeriCorps.
AmeriCorps led a group of us (maybe about 75 people) into a neighborhood that had been hit by the storm. We had to probably walk a mile until we got to our designated street. The AmeriCorps reps explained to us that the homeowners needed help cleaning up because many of them were injured and in the hospital. We were told that debris cleanup trucks would only be running for so many days to load debris from the curbs and after they finished running, any cleanup would be at the expense and burden of the homeowners. Thus, we were trying to get as much cleaned up as we could before the burden would fall onto the victims’ shoulders.
Driving through the tornado’s path was mind boggling. I really cannot think of a decent way to describe it. It was chilling to see nothing but rubble as far as the eye can see.
If the houses were lucky enough to have walls standing, there would be spray painted codes indicating if K9 units searched for victims or how many dead bodies were found or whether there was a gas leak involved. Many houses, though, had no walls standing. It was nothing more than a slab of foundation with the rest of the house blown to bits so small I could scoop most of it up in my hands.
And that was how we spent the weekend…cleaning up debris, handfuls at a time. Sometimes you would find a piece of a house that might need two or three people to carry it. We had piles… one for yard debris, tree limbs or logs the chain sawers broke up for us, one for electronics, one for waste products, one for housing material, and one for metals.
Any personal objects we found that we felt the homeowners wanted went on the foundation for them to look at later. Any essential documentation like social security cards or birth certificates went to our AmeriCorps crew leaders to later take to City Hall.
You would think working with 75 strangers would be hard to do but we didn’t have any problem getting in the groove. We quickly formed lines of people to pass bricks and cinderblocks. Strangers teamed up to rake and shovel small debris. One guy who I almost inadvertently smacked with a tree limb I was hauling later saved me from having to pick up a dead squirrel. The stench of rotting food was overwhelming at times but we sometimes found reasons to laugh (like when Mike Rothrock pretended I had a large spider under my armpit and watched me dance around slapping at myself).
The sun was brutal, the work was back-breaking but the reward was immense. I was impressed by all of the volunteers. The Red Cross was a treasure, driving trucks up and down the debris fields handing us out Gatorade and snacks to keep us energized and hydrated. Church groups fed us lunch and the Salvation Army handed out some amazing peach popsicles to help cool us down. Many times a volunteer would be struggling to pick up a piece of debris, and another would rush in to help. Late on Sunday, a reporter from the London Times came out and was taking pictures. He said that you don’t see volunteerism like this in the UK. I don’t know if that was true or not but it made me proud to be an American and help out my fellow American citizens.
I was fortunate to talk to a lady whose property we helped clean up. Her house was obliterated. I went up to her and simply asked, “Is this your house we are working on?” When she said yes, I asked her if I could just give her a hug which she gratefully accepted. She told me that we were not to worry about them; that they were grateful to be alive and have so many wonderful people helping them out. Her attitude was very inspiring.
At the end of each work day, Mike, Patrice and I would load up and drive the 55 miles back to Vinita for the night. We were really tired and didn’t even hardly talk on the drive. I think we were all ruminating over the things we had seen and the stories we had heard. I know before I went to bed each night, loaded up on Extra Strength Tylenol and still feeling the pain, I gave a small prayer of thanks to God to allow me the opportunity to just be able to help for a few days. We hardly made a dent but I feel like I truly made a difference in some way. AmeriCorps told us it will take at least a year to clean up all of the debris. More volunteers are needed to help.
The rest of this blog I’m devoting to photos. Most are photos I took on my iPhone but a few I pulled off the web because they gave a better persepctive than what I could capture.
This photo was taken from the web to show perspective of some other photos I took. From where the photographer is standing, St. John’s Hospital is behind the photographer and you are looking up 26th Street.
This is taken from the top of the hill on 26th Street with St. John’s in the distance.
This was taken from the web showing satellite views of before and after the tornado at Joplin High School and the surrounding area.
Here are several photos of the area where we were working in the 26th Street portion of the damage.
Volunteerism is not easy nor is it comfortable. But it is necessary. It is what sets us apart and it touches everyone. I banded together this weekend with male, female, old, young, black, white, Indian, Arab, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, all with one common purpose to help people I didn’t know, in another state. I’ve never been prouder to be an American.