Ever have one of those experiences that absolutely, completely, permanently, totally shakes you to your core and changes who you are and how you live? Have you really? I’ve read here in COFFEE Land about some of your moments like this: close calls with parents’ health, cancer, deaths of loved ones – furry and human alike… I have to admit some serious déjà vu here. I’ve written something about a moment or two of my own this past year right here in COFFEEville, but thankfully not quite like what I’m about to talk about today. Thank God.
The afternoon of Sunday, May 22, was a typical Sunday afternoon. The kids and I had a fairly lazy day, some cleaning and wii playing, snacks, outdoor play with the neighbors, the usual. It was overcast, and there was a chance of thunderstorms at the beginning of the day. As the day went on, the chances of storms increased, and they were announcing the threat of a tornado outbreak. “Conditions are optimal for significant tornadic activity.” (Thank you, Weather Channel, for that nugget.) Now, if you are not from the Midwest or have never lived in the Midwest, this doesn’t mean anything to you at all. If you are from here, you know the drill. Prep the basement, and just go on with your business until you hear the sirens, if they come at all. It’s what we do around here from about March until about September. That’s just part of it. Sometimes it gets nasty, and other times it’s just a matter of being ready.
(I have to insert right here and now the fact that I am DEATHLY afraid of storms. I hate them. It’s a silly fear, because there isn’t one doggone thing a person can do to combat them, stop or control them, or make them less frightening. Some people are drawn to the power of Mother Nature. I am not one of those people. I have a more than healthy respect for what She can do, and I’ve seen the aftermath a couple of times in my life. As the mom, though, I have to keep it together when She shows up. No sense in ALL of us being crazed with fear, and I truly hope my kids simply respect Her and are not as fearful as I am for their whole lives.)
Well, no amount of being ready or even the Weather Channel could prepare anyone for what took place that afternoon.
Sometime mid-afternoon, my kids and I went to a student’s home to help her finish her semester’s work. (She’s homebound due to a medical situation.) We stayed until about 4:30. When we left her home, I looked up and was truly afraid. I’ve seen some scary skies before, but what I saw to the west was utterly horrifying. (See photo, courtesy of my homebound student) My gut immediately knotted up, and I could NOT get my kids and I home fast enough. I’m sure I broke more than one land-speed record.
Once home, we immediately went to the basement. I took my laptop, flashlights, pillows, extra blankets, and snacks down. I also unhooked the wii and hooked it up downstairs for the kids. I knew it would be a long night below deck. I then did something I have never done before. I took my 9 mm and all the ammo I own for it, my file of important documents and such, the largest box of family photos, and my phone and charger downstairs. I then packed a bag with a couple changes of clothes for each of us, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, and our Bibles. That bag, too, went downstairs. I’m not sure why I did this. I just know my gut said this time was different. I double-checked the bottled water supply. I grabbed the radio and turned it on. The local radio stations were going wall-to-wall with weather information by then, which usually means something’s brewing, whether it’s just a nasty thunderstorm, strong winds, hail, whatever.
At this point, they were beginning to report that tornadoes had touched down to the west and that we needed to be taking cover, preparing for the worst. The track the storm was taking was supposed to go through Carl Junction, immediately to the west of us, into Airport Drive and Webb City, our home sweet home. “Oh, Lord, please, no. Keep us safe,” I remember repeating over and over.
I made a call to the kids' father, who is in the medical aviation industry. His pilots get weather reports that are more accurate than most meteorologists’. I asked if it was really coming. I didn’t like the answer. He told me it was very bad and going to get much worse, to get the kids to the basement and be prepared to STAY THERE. And again… THUD, as if my heart could drop any lower. The phone call ended with these words from him, “I have to stay here. Be careful. Stay calm. Talk soon.”
By this time, it’s around 5 p.m., and the winds are BLOWING, the rain is coming, and it’s getting scarier in the skies. The radio station is reporting tornado touchdowns in southeast Kansas and that the storm is RACING across that part of the state and directly into SW Missouri. They were telling people all over the area to seek shelter and take cover. A big one was coming, and it was coming fast.
Still, nobody knew what was about to be unleashed.
The sirens sounded. The kids stopped what they were doing, put on their shoes, and sat quietly. The sirens continued. The hail started. The radio announcers declared tornadoes were on the ground in our county. The hail stopped but the sirens did not. The rain pounded so hard I thought it would take the windows out of the house. The winds shook our nearly-3000-sq-foot home. Like pictures-off-the-wall shook the house. And then came Hail, Round 2. And then it was quiet. The sky was an eery green-gray, but it was over. It rained again briefly, a soft, cleansing rain, and then quit altogether. I looked around, and the house was intact. Trees were still standing, and everything was as it should be. It. Was. Over. We made it. I breathed a sigh and said a prayer of thanks.
And then the reports began coming in. Facebook lit up like Baghdad on that first night of the air raids. “Turn on the Weather Channel. It’s terrible.” “Oh my God, what just happened?” “Is everyone alright?” “What the H@LL?” “Does anyone know what is going on? Why aren’t the phones working?” “I can’t get my mom on the phone. She was trying to drive home from Joplin!!!!! HELP!” “Is YOUR house still standing?” “Is it true?”
We were fine. What was going on? SO, I did what I wish I hadn’t done. Maybe if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been real. But I did, and it was. I turned on the Weather Channel. Mike Bettes, the famed Weather Channel storm expert who has seen it ALL, was standing in front of what used to be St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, a short 8 miles from my home, where he and his crew parked because they couldn’t go any further into the city because of the destruction. I was shocked…..
I immediately tried to call the kids' dad again. He was THERE, at St. John’s, working. From the looks of that building, I could only pray that he was still alive and able to answer his phone. No answer. No signal. No service. (I would later learn that most cell towers were completely leveled in the tornado.) Nothing. I tried again, knowing he wouldn’t answer and completely afraid of why he might not. I hit redial and got the kids away from the television just in time to see Bettes break down in tears at the devastation he was looking at, live and up close. I knew then that it wasn’t just a tornado, not just a storm, but something awful, truly awful. I hit redial again. Nothing. Absolutely nothing… Except my tears and pictures I could not comprehend.
Eventually, my phone buzzed. A text message! I learned via text that their dad had survived an extremely close call, that he was helping to remove bodies and do search & rescue at the hospital. I learned via text that our church was all but completely destroyed, what was left was being used as a make-shift surgery center, that the tables where my kids sat to do crafts and read their Bibles were used to remove limbs and debris from people. I learned via text that even though St. John’s was still standing, it was decimated and those on duty were trying desperately to account for all the patients and staff, removing both survivors and the dead. I learned via text that my grandfather, who had been in that hospital visiting his twin brother, was missing and unaccounted for. I learned via text that three schools were destroyed. (Later we would learn that it was more than those three.) I learned via text that friends were alive. I learned via text that others were missing or had discovered loved ones who were no longer alive. I learned via text that many lost every single thing that they owned. I learned via text that many of the businesses, restaurants, & places that we frequent were completely gone. It was a long and difficult couple of hours.
I continued to follow facebook and the Weather Channel. I continued to text. I continued to pray. I continued to try to talk to my mother, my friends, my people via phone. Finally, I reached my mom. I told her we were fine. I told her many were not. We cried.
Three hours after the storm, dark was descending and the city was beginning to move. Shelters were being set up. Supplies, water, clothing, bedding, etc., were being collected and distributed. The kids and I had seen enough via TV. We decided to do something. We went through all the clothing and such that we’d bagged for rummage sales or donation and selected many pieces, shoes, etc. We grabbed old sleeping bags and a couple extra pillows and loaded it all in the van. Just before we left, my phone buzzed again. “I found him. He is fine.” The kids' dad had found my grandfather, dazed but miraculously unhurt. Praise God. I tried to call Mom but couldn’t get through. I texted my brother and asked him to call Mom. He did. And somehow she was able to get another call through to me. Through tears, she asked me to pass along her thanks. I told her I would. We got so lucky. SO LUCKY. After that news, the kids and I were able to head for town. Memorial Hall, a downtown entertainment venue, had become a central location that survivors were being sent and was quickly becoming the first triage center for the injured. We drove there but could not get within two blocks of the place for the emergency vehicles and other cars trying to get their injured loved ones to safety.
Just then the radio began to read a list of other shelters that had opened and were ready for use. We headed to a church nearby to deliver the few things we could offer. They didn’t have anyone to shelter yet, but they were so grateful to have some things to provide when the people came.
Traffic was bumper to bumper. People were everywhere, walking, running, riding bikes, driving half-there vehicles, clearly damaged from the storm. There was no electricity. It was so dark. Thank God I couldn’t see any of the damage at that point. I’m not sure my heart could take it. With nowhere else to go and not one more thing we could do to help, we went home.
I put my kids to bed, even though all I really wanted to do was snuggle up with them forever. They and I had school the next day. Their world was intact. Their father was fine. Their home was standing. Their friends were safe for the most part. Their reality and understanding of what happened was limited. They slept. I did not.
I didn’t know about so many of our friends, who both lived and worked there, and had no way to find out about them, either. As my mind started to list everyone we knew in the affected area or who had family there, I got so overwhelmed. SO MANY PEOPLE. SO MUCH LOST. SO MANY MISSING. How were people getting through this? I was okay. My family was okay. My home was okay. I was lucky. The storm didn’t go where it should have gone. The storm was so much worse than it should have been. The reality was ugly, and I felt guilty for feeling grateful. Yet I was so profoundly grateful. Guilt and gratitude is a strange mix of emotion that turns like the tides, in waves of pain and unworthiness that crash and recede into relief and thankfulness.
Overnight, the death toll started to climb, and the reports about just how widespread the damage was began to emerge. Reports about sacrifices made to save others also emerged. Information from the National Weather Service was almost more than many could bear to hear. Rumors were rampant. Just how bad was it? No one knew. In truth, things just kept getting worse, and there was no end in sight.
Then daylight broke, as did the hearts of every Joplin resident, every family member of every Joplin resident, and everyone who has ever had ties to this community. The damage was unprecedented for a single tornado. The devastation was VAST, with over 30% of the entire town wiped completely off the map. And I do mean COMPLETELY. Off. The. Map. In all, over 150 were killed, over a thousand injured, and, for many days, hundreds were missing. (Thankfully, the number of missing/unaccounted for is now 0. ZERO. A real miracle, frankly.) Yet search and rescue efforts continued, with volunteers from all over the country arriving to help. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, emergency services vehicles, ATVs, heavy equipment from countless communities in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas was already in town working. The National Guard arrived to help. It was a sight to see. On many street corners, groups set up cooking stations to feed those displaced and the volunteers working. It will take months for people to drink all the bottled water that was donated, semi trailer after semi trailer FULL of it. Everywhere you looked, people were helping others to dig for people and possessions, crying and praying together, talking, just staring in bewilderment, repairing anything that was repairable in hopes that SOMETHING could be salvaged. It was like something you might see in the movies, only the people of Joplin were LIVING it in real time.
Unless you have been under a rock since that day, you’ve no doubt seen something about it. I could post several thousand pictures, none of which I took. You need only google “Joplin, MO tornado 2011,” and you’ll be inundated with more pictures of what’s left than you could ever stomach looking at, I guarantee it. You might have watched coverage of the memorial service that took place exactly one week after the storm that President Obama attended. Our pastor, Aaron Brown, delivered an amazing sermon at that service. If that service didn’t move you, you are not human. You might have observed the minute of silence at 5:41 on that Sunday, exactly one week after the storm. You might have watched the national news outlets, many of whom (including Diane Sawyer, Anderson Cooper, & Mike Bettes) interviewed my kids' father about his experience inside the hospital before, during, after the storm, talk about the outpouring of support for this community from within and from around the world. It has truly been something to behold. TRULY. Not only is the damage unprecedented, so too are the relief efforts and the response & morale in Joplin.
People didn’t scream for help. They jumped in to help others. They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t hesitate. They didn’t complain for the most part. They worked. They consoled one another. They slept little and ate a lot (thanks to all the awesome volunteers who drove the streets dropping off meals and worked at those food stations I mentioned earlier). They hugged each other, friends & strangers alike. They spray painted messages of hope and care on what was left of their homes. They opened their homes. In fact, many of the shelters didn’t house more than a few families because so many people had taken in friends & family members! How cool is that??? These people who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, livelihoods, cars, jobs, things were looking out for each other. I was and am in awe. For real. Yeah, there are some real low-lifes around, trying to scam people, loot, take advantage. Sure. I wouldn’t want to be one of those who got caught around here, let me tell you. That wouldn’t end well in any way, shape, or form. I can promise you that. Ish… makes me cringe just to imagine it!
This disaster didn’t happen to me. It’s not my story. Again, my family and I were lucky. I cannot even begin to tell you how thankful I am for the fact that I am not without power, shelter, clothes, a toothbrush, an address, a loved one, a job to go to. That kind of pure and complete gratitude is an experience I can’t say I’ve ever felt in all of my life. I am grateful for many things and have been over the course of my life, but I’ve never really seen people lose so much and carry on the way so many around here have in the last weeks. It makes crystal clear how good life is and what counts; it also makes clear WHO counts, and THAT counts for so much.
Hug your spouse/significant other, kiss your kids, walk through your house – whatever shape it’s in - and be grateful for the shelter it provides, salute your boss (all 5 fingers, please) and tell your co-workers you appreciate them, give that old car a pat, and imagine all of it being gone in the blink of an eye, taken out by one violent funnel cloud. Don’t know about you, but I’m one uber-humbled chick, and I’m so thankful I still have all of that and then some. Pray for Joplin, please, including those helping and those who aren’t as lucky. Everyone around here right now could sure use those.