I had the pleasure of meeting several survivors of the Joplin tragedy on our visit this past Tuesday. Sam, pictured above, was one of them. What you see behind him is all that remains of what was once his single story brick home off of 22nd and just West of Main Street, one of the hardest hit areas of the city. All that remains, I should say, except for his basement, which thank God he had available to him that fateful day just over one week earlier.
Roll the clock back to that day, May 22nd, and the photo below captures what Sam saw as he emerged from the basement. You are seeing correctly, not a single wall was left standing. The white tarp at the bottom of the image now covers the entrance to his basement - to prevent anyone from accidentally falling-in now that the structure that was once above it is completely gone.
In the series of photos below, you can see the view in all directions today from Sam's house. The destruction is, for lack of a better word, incredible.
Sam walking down his front steps (looking to the South)
View from inside Sam's home, looking to the North
View from inside Sam's home, looking to the East
View from inside Sam's home, looking to the West
Most of the remaining trees around his home are at least partially debarked (another sign, as if we needed it, that the tornado which caused this destruction was among the strongest that ever occur anywhere on earth). Part of someone's garage door is wrapped around one tree, part of a car (or perhaps a truck) is wrapped around another. One of his neighbors homes, like Sam's, is completely gone. Fortunately the family of 4 (which includes 2 small children), was out of town that day. The home on the other side of Sam's still has a few walls remaining. Unfortunately, the man living there did not survive.
I asked Sam what he was doing on that Sunday afternoon when the tornado hit, and what had prompted him to (thankfully) seek shelter. He said that he heard the outdoor tornado warning sirens sounding, so he went out on his back porch to take a look (he doesn't watch TV). He had a perfect view of the approaching storm, but could not see the actual tornado as it was behind the rain and hail that were advancing toward his home. He said that he "heard the wind, a strong, roaring wind unlike anything I ever heard before - just like all the people always say when a tornado comes..." He said he wasn't sure what exactly prompted him, but at some point he just felt like he needed to go down and get into the basement (which was not something that he did on a regular basis - even during a tornado warning). For some reason, this one felt different, and he felt like he needed to take cover.
It appeared to me that almost every home in Sam's neighborhood had a basement. Many, including Sam's, were full of debris. Fortunately, Sam also had a tornado safe room in the Southwest corner of his basement (which had been installed by a previous owner). That is where he took shelter that day. He had to be rescued afterward, with at least part of his home having crashed down into the basement and blocking the doorway of the safe room. He was not injured.
I really didn't want to ask him the obligatory "what did you hear and what did it feel like when you were down in the basement" question (not because I didn't care or wasn't interested, but because it felt very inappropriate to be asking such a question given the fact that this man had survived a "one in a million" tornado and I was standing in the middle of what looked like a war zone at the time). Fortunately I didn't have to. Sam volunteered the information almost immediately after having told me that he ran into the safe room: "it sounded like the whole neighborhood was being bombed, and my skin hurt - it felt like it was being sucked off of me..."
He asked me how long it probably took for the tornado to pass over his home, because "to me, it felt like 5 or 10 minutes". He couldn't believe it (and I took no pleasure in informing him) that it likely only took a matter of seconds for his entire home to be swept away and destroyed by the tornado.
I couldn't help but be amazed at how calm, cool and collected Sam was as we stood and talked on the dusty wood floor which was all that remained of his home that evening. Of course, it had been 9 days since the event took place, but still, the enormity of it all just seemed as if it would take months to get over, if it were me. He showed me a single coin that had been passed down to him by his grandfather some years back. He was thrilled to have found it in some of the rubble that had been carried a few doors down and dropped in the middle of the street. Those, he told me, are the things that cannot be replaced, and he was glad to have found even just one family treasure amidst all of the ruins. The fact that an item so small could have been recovered among the tons of debris that littered the neighborhood is amazing in and of itself, I suppose.
A pile of rubble includes some of the remains of Sam's house
(which is now several doors down the street)
I will never forget what it felt like for me personally to be standing in the middle of this disaster area, witnessing it first hand, even a week later. What it looked like, what it felt like, and yes, what it smelled like are burned into my senses for what, at least at this time, feels like will be an eternity.
On the positive side, I will also not soon forget the people that I met, like Sam, who have the positive attitude, outlook and desire to stick it out, rebuild and start all over again. "There's no way I'm leaving Joplin..." he said, "...this is my home".
For more on the Joplin tornado event, click here to return to the table of contents post, which contains a chronological listing of all related posts, and will be updated with new links as additional posts are made.
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