Joplin Tornado: An Outsider's Perspective

It's an indescribable sight: homes leveled, large amounts of debris scattered about including cars twisted in in abnormal shapes, tree's stripped down to the stumps...

Just last week I was standing right in the middle of it all, trying to figure out where I should start taping for my story while also trying to take it in. Turning to the left, I spotted a baby's toy on the edge of the curb. I sat and stared for at least two minutes. Where was this baby now? Where was the family? Did they all get out safe? I took my camera and focused in on it.

Next I turned slightly more to my left and noticed a tricycle wedged between a broken home and the stump of a tree. What had that home looked like before the single deadliest tornado since 1950 tore through this small town of about 50,000 people? Everywhere lied bits of people's life, torn apart and in a pile of shambles.

I've been trying to write this blog post since I got back, but where do I start? How do you explain how it feels to stand in the middle of a place where hundreds of lives have been destroyed? How do you explain the empty pit you get in your stomach the second you see it? It's not easy, but here it is. This is an outsider's perspective.

When I first arrived in Joplin, I began to get nervous and braced myself by taking a few deep breaths. I had heard about the horror, I had seen the pictures, but I knew it was going to be different when I saw it myself. I was right. It's one thing to see the pictures, another to see it first-hand, and a completely another to live it. I can't explain how it is to live it - because I didn't, but I can describe what I saw.

My first day there I didn't get much of a chance to talk to residents, but I did visit a site where volunteers were handing out necessities. It was clear these people were reaching out for any sort of help they could get. Thousands had visited throughout the day to get things like toothbrushes, toilet paper, and water. Next door the only good source of communication the town had, the radio station, was broadcasting pleas from people asking if anyone had seen friends and family.

After the 9 p.m. liveshot it started lightening pretty bad, so we packed up. Curfew had started at 9 anyway. As soon as we got everything back in the sat truck, the tornado sirens started going off. My two friends and I jumped into our car and raced to a friend's house. On our way there we almost collided with another car in a hurry. As we tried to turn they stuck their heads out of the window and started yelling and swearing at us, asking us what we were thinking and asking us to move. I don't blame them for their actions, not after what they had been through a few days before.

At my friends house we took cover in her bathroom:

Thankfully the stormed passed. During the sirens though, I thought about how I would never think lightly of a tornado warning again. After seeing the devastation that day, I was terrified. I noticed however, how those at my friend's house were laughing and making jokes. One friend was staying over because he had lost his home. I kept asking them how they were so calm, and the guy who lost his home replied, "I've lost everything I have, I have nothing more to lose than my life."

After a few zzz's, it was time for the morning show. We headed back to our live location at 3:30 a.m.

During the morning show, I decided to take a walk around by myself. I peered into what was what left of buildings, staring down at the ground to see what things I might see. It felt odd to be looking into open buildings and homes, as if I were invading people's private lives. What irked me is, while there were belongings that had been tossed thousands of feet from where they had once been, there were several things that sat in the same place they had been before the storm. One in particular I remember is a binder. Our live shot was located next to the Stained Glass Theatre. On the night of the storm, a production had just closed it curtains. Two people were killed in the theatre. Beside some exterior walls, the theater itself had practically been demolished. On top of it sat a car. Inside, where I suspect the basement had been, was a binder sitting on a wooden shelf. It looked virtually untouched. You wonder how things like that happen... The storm can throw a truck against a tree and bend the metal so the front of the truck is touching the back, but a binder didn't move one inch.

After the morning show, the two I had come down with left back to Columbia and I went with the sat truck operator back to his hotel to wait for the next to two reporters coming down.

While sitting in the hotel lobby an sweet elderly man sitting at the table next to me smiled and said hello to me. His eyes were barely open, glued shut by a lack of sleep and I'm assuming lots of crying. I explained to him who I was and asked if it'd be okay if I sat next to him. From there we talked for a good 45 minutes. He told me about how he and his wife had lost his home and how he was thankful to be alive. He told me how he was taking it okay, but his wife wasn't. He said she was finally getting sleep for the first time since the tornado. He couldn't sleep though. He seemed in good spirits for someone who had been through such a tragic event. It wasn't until I asked him if he saw the support coming in from surrounding communities that he started crying. He explained how some boys from Kansas City came to help him, people he didn't even know. Throughout my trip in Joplin, I met several people who didn't cry when telling me their story... only when they started explaining how volunteers who randomly showed up to help them did they cry. It gave me a sense this was a strong community, one that just needed help from the outside to rebuild itself.

Once the two reporters got there we headed out to where officials were handing out permits for families to get back into the devastated areas for the first time... except they had run out of permits and were now allowing people into the areas with photo identifications such as driver's licenses. The problem they were having is many people had lost everything including their driver's license. Finally they just started letting everybody in. I spoke with a police officer who said they had hoped to stop looting in the areas, but it wasn't almost impossible to tell who had lived in the area and who hadn't. Many had lost their identifications in the tornado and many others were family members wanting to help. I didn't see any looting, but I sure hope there wasn't any. I know there was when the tornado first hit. There were plenty of "gawkers" driving through that day though.

After this, I headed back to the devastated area where I had been the past few days. It took awhile, but I finally gathered up the courage to talk with a couple digging through their grandfather's home. I heisted at first because I heard some swearing and thought they might be too upset to talk. Turns out they were more than glad to see the media out there. "People need to know what's going on here," they told me. It goes to show though how many stories can be missed if you don't bother to politely ask if you can talk to them. If feel it's never good to say you understand what they are going through, but it is okay to comfort them and tell them you are sorry... even if they don't want to talk with you.

The man, Dustin Orange, explained to me how he ran many blocks to his grandfather's home after the tornado, jumping power lines, trees, and dodging through traffic. As soon as he got to the home he began digging where he thought his grandfather might be. A neighbor came by to say he had gotten his uncle and grandfather out from under a van and got them help. Read his entire story in his own words here. Watch my story below watch as he and his wife dig through the home to see what they could salvage:

I next talked to a couple digging through their own home. Adam, the husband, told me about he and his wife Maggie were Hurricane Katrina victims and how they had only been in Joplin for 10 months. Adam told me the amazing story of how he had searched for his puppy Saint after the tornado hit, but couldn't find him. The next day he and Maggie came back and dug through the rubble to find Saint's cage. Once they caught a glimpse of it, they called his name, but didn't hear anything. Finally his wife stuck her finger through the cage and felt Saint's licking her fingers. A Tulsa photographer was there to capture the moment they pulled Saint out of the rubble. It's photo that has been splashed on the front cover of many big name newspapers, giving other Joplin resident's hope:

The day I met them they were going through their home picking out any personal item they could save. About 30 volunteers, ranging from kids to adults from nearby ministries, had come to help Adam, Maggie, and other residents sift through the rubble. Adam and Maggie had garbage bags full of what they had saved. Adam said it would not have been possible to find everything they had without the help of those volunteers. Now, he and his wife plan to move to Texas where they have family.

Halfway through the second day I was already exhausted. I was tired of seeing faces filled with pain. Tired of seeing broken trees and tangled cars everywhere. The town itself had an eerie feeling hanging over it, even in the parts that hadn't been touched by the tornado. The few naps I took in the car definitely helped take it all in, but even time I woke up, I still felt like I was in a dream.

Coming home I had many mixed emotions. The hardest part for me was going to bed the morning I got home. My favorite part of my day is always climbing into my warm bed after a long day, but here I was feeling terribly guilty. These people no longer have beds to climb into, no place but stiff cots to rest their tired bodies. I can't even imagine what it feels like to have the comfort of your own home completely stripped from you. I can't imagine not having a quiet place to go to pray that family and friends will come home safely. That morning I was slightly afraid to fall asleep, I was afraid I would dream of the horror stories I had heard. The story of the 18-year-old boy who was traveling home with his father after his high school graduation when the tornado sucked him out out of the car's sunroof. The story of several people being sucked out of the hospital's windows. The stories I can't even share on here. But I did fall asleep and that evening I woke up, still feeling like all I had witnessed the past few days was just a dream...I just wish I could say it was.

A few links I felt were worth sharing: Before and after street views, as well as an overhead aerial view, in the devastated areas.

LA Times compilation of photos.

Daily Mail's before and after shots, aerial shots, and incredible photos from after the tornado.

My own Flickr slideshow coming soon!

UPDATE: With the help of KOMU and United Way, mid-Missouri has raised over a million dollars for Joplin. I can't express how proud of my community I am!!!

Bon Jovi Set Up Takes More Than A Prayer

Got some Bon Jovi lovin'? I spent yesterday learning how a concert on the tour is set up. Boy, it was quite the experience and a fun story to tell! The entire crew was extremely friendly and helpful!

Take a look at my story and the photos I took:

Read the online story by clicking here.
Copyright © Tara Grimes
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