Thursday, May 22, 2014

Never Forget: The Third Anniversary of the Joplin Tornado

Three years ago today, the Joplin tornado tore our town into pieces. In some ways, it seems like yesterday; in others, it was a lifetime ago.

The tornado missed our home, but many of our friends lost theirs. Many lost their businesses. Some lost both. 161 people were killed.

This is not something you forget.

We are reminded the first Monday of every month, when the storm sirens are tested. We are reminded every time severe weather is predicted. We are reminded by all the new homes and apartment buildings that have cropped up in a land with no trees. We are reminded by the occasional twisted sign or boarded up home that still remains. We are reminded when we send our high schoolers to two make-shift buildings for classes. We are reminded every time we venture out into the town, for the landscape is forever changed. 

Following is an excerpt from a post I wrote for the second anniversary of the tornado:

I Live In Tornado Alley
(originally published May 20, 2013) 

When spring finally rolls into our area, so does tornado season. We in Joplin, Missouri, are a little twitchy about this. Where we once were casual about tornado watches, we now cancel activities and glue ourselves to the tv for storm coverage. 

And when the tornado sirens blow, we MOVE. 

I was born and raised in Tornado Alley. Which is a misnomer, because it's no alley. It's more like a vast parking lot, stretching across much of the mid-section of the United States. On the evening of May 20, 1957, an F5 tornado ripped through the Ruskin Heights area, just south of Kansas City, destroying the high school, a junior high, an elementary school, a church, a shopping center, and hundreds of relatively new homes and other businesses. Few of the homes had basements, and there were no storm sirens. 34 people were killed, including two staff members at the high school. 

What was left of Ruskin High School - 5/20/57
My parents bought a home in Ruskin Heights a few years later, after everything had been rebuilt. I grew up attending Ruskin Heights Presbyterian Church, which had been destroyed in the tornado and which served as a temporary morgue in the aftermath of the storm. Warning sirens had been installed after the tornado, and everyone heeded them. Our home didn't have a basement, but our next door neighbors' did, and we headed there any time the sirens blew. We even had a key to their home, in case they weren't there when a storm came through. The schools were rebuilt, but if there were so much as a tornado WATCH, we were sent home from school (something we kids LOVED, as we might get sent home early once or twice a week during the spring).

There were other reminders of the tornado as well, such as the church member who was confined to a wheelchair due to her injuries (and who had had a young daughter pulled from her arms as she ran for shelter at the church that evening). The nail heads that attached the drywall to the studs in our homes were all raised bumps, as the pressure of the tornado had forced them to pop out slightly.  In fact, I was a pretty big kid before I found out that this wasn't "normal" in a home. 

And when the sirens blew that there was a tornado warning (meaning a tornado had been SIGHTED, for those of you who don't live in Tornado Alley), we hustled to a basement. Fast.

So, after many years of moving around the country, my husband and I moved back to Missouri. And the most important criteria I had for finding a house was that it HAD to have a basement. I may have lost my childhood terror of hearing those sirens, but I knew that tornadoes meant BUSINESS, and I had a healthy respect for their power.

Then on the evening of May 22, 2011, while a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued and rain was pelting down, a tornado was spotted on the Kansas/Missouri border just west of Joplin, and the tornado sirens were sounded.

We jumped into action, with the house rule of putting on tennis shoes, grabbing the cell phones, the car keys, and my purse, and heading to our basement.  Our cats followed us down, curious as to why we were rushing around so, and we shut the door and turned on the radio.

Regular programming was interrupted with the weather report. The tornado was moving to the northeast, heading directly toward our part of town. My husband and I exchanged glances and he said, "This is really going to happen." 

My daughter, then 12, sat on the floor next to the furnace (and the litter box), a large Rubbermaid container over her head, crying.

My 15 year old son, who had grabbed a bag of pretzels on his way through the kitchen to the basement, was stuffing pretzels in his mouth, crumbs flying everywhere.

I was madly sweeping up kitty litter, having determined the safest place in the basement was right where the litter box was.

My husband was listening to the progress of the tornado.

The cats were milling about.

The announcer began talking about the tornado being on the ground in an area known as Iron Gates. Then there was talk of the hospital being hit. We were confused. That was NOT the path the tornado was supposed to be taking.  I stopped sweeping and listened. The tornado had changed its path. It was no longer headed towards our neighborhood. Instead, it cut a swath up to a mile wide and over six miles long across the heart of the city. 

The high school was destroyed, as was one of the two hospitals in town, three elementary schools, plus churches and businesses. Nearly 7000 homes were completely destroyed, with hundreds more sustaining damage. 161 people were killed, hundreds injured. While our home was spared, our lives would never be the same. (You can read about a major way I was affected here and here.

Mercy Hospital, completely gutted.

Joplin High School

Beyond the sign was once
the high school, surrounded
by homes and big trees.

The beloved dance studio where
my daughter spent much of her time.

Sad little dancer.

Today is the anniversary of the Ruskin tornado. In two days, it will be the second anniversary of the Joplin tornado. We spent half an hour in our basement this evening when a line of severe thunderstorms brought the imminent threat of a tornado.

Today is the one year anniversary of the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado. Just over three weeks ago, a tornado damaged two towns just to the southwest of Joplin. 

Tornadoes don't mess around.


  1. Ive been in two bad storm situations while traveling... once while flying and once in a boat... both were terrifying for everyone involved but we pulled out ok and we were lucky to not be on land at the time even though it was nothing like this devastation. Stay safe this spring...

    1. I don't think being in a plane OR a boat would be much fun in a storm. The basement is bad enough.