The Joplin Tornado (Part I): The Storm
I awoke on Sunday, May 22, feeling lonely. My big girls were with their dad, Aaron, my husband Travis was in Illinois, and I was in Joplin with my one-year-old Lauren. Normally, I welcomed this arrangement; with Lauren still napping twice a day and sleeping twelve hours at night, I practically had the time to myself.
My friend Julie had invited me and Lauren to attend her son’s high school graduation ceremony that afternoon, but since it was during Lauren’s nap time, I declined. My friend Shanon had invited us to come over to her house to swim
But I missed my family that day. To take my mind off my loneliness, I decided to keep myself busy. I buckled Lauren into her car seat, drove to Starbucks for breakfast, then later picked up some fresh produce from Sam’s Club, and a Caramel Cashew Crunch sundae from Freddy’s Frozen Custard in the afternoon. When I got home, I put the sundae in the freezer so I could eat it for dessert that night, put Lauren down for a nap, then started to tackle a portion of the seemingly endless project of sorting and labeling old photos.
As I brought the basket of photos to the dining room and began spreading them out, I had a nagging thought about my older girls, Madeleine and Vivian. They were supposed to travel to northwest Arkansas that day to the Build-a-Bear store for a friend’s birthday party, and I wasn’t sure what time they’d return. I felt compelled to check the Weather Channel app on my iPhone to make sure that no storms had formed where my girls were.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m obsessive about the weather. I even subscribe to the Weather Channel’s “Severe Weather Alert” service, which calls me whenever there’s a tornado warning. The app’s Sunday forecast called for storms to move into the area around 6 p.m. I texted Aaron to find out when the girls were expected back from Arkansas. His answer of “5 p.m.” did little to alleviate my anxiety. That was cutting it a bit too close for me to relax.
I turned to my photo project to refocus my mind. I’d made some respectable progress, separating the photos into piles by year and writing a description on the back of each one. However, looking at the sweet faces of my girls as they morphed from cherubic babies into independent school kids only made me miss them more.
The ringing of my cell phone broke my melancholy mood; I was relieved to talk to someone, and was comforted when I heard my mom’s cheerful voice.
We talked for a while, then she passed the phone to my dad. As I was talking to him, our golden retriever Micky, who had been in the backyard, jumped on the kitchen window, scraping his nails down the glass. Micky is afraid of storms, and we always bring him inside and put him in the laundry room when it rains. I glanced at the sky at that moment; it appeared drab and overcast, but not threatening at all.
I joked with my dad that Micky must have heard thunder somewhere in Colorado, since there was no sign of a storm here. Nonetheless, I brought Micky inside the laundry room so he would calm down. It was 4 p.m.
I talked to my dad until it was time to wake up Lauren, who was taking a very long nap. When I reached her crib, she was sucking her thumb, her plump little cheek was pressed into the mattress, her legs were tucked under her, and her little bum sticking up in the air.
I grabbed my phone and took a picture of her, and sent it to Travis. How can I possibly wake her up? I texted. But I did. We went downstairs and I gave her some milk to drink.
I sat with her in a wicker chair by the kitchen window and removed her sleep sack blanket as she drank. The sky outside was grey, and low rumbles punctuated the quiet afternoon. Forecaster Micky started whining an hour ago, I texted to Travis. Hear thunder now.
Once Lauren finished her drink, something compelled me to ready our storm shelter, a steel box bolted to the concrete in a corner of our garage. A week and a half earlier, our family had done a practice drill on how to respond to a tornado warning. This was in response to a situation where my daughters and I had been returning from a birthday party driving through the heart of the city when the tornado sirens sounded. At that moment, I’d thought, This is my nightmare. I’ve got all three girls in the car and we don’t have any shelter. Suppressing my growing hysteria, I (somewhat) calmly called Travis to see where the storm was tracking; it was far enough north of us that we wouldn’t cross paths with it.
I let out a deep breath.
When we reached our house, Travis was standing in the driveway looking at the sky to the north. Our neighbors, Amy and Terry were doing the same. The girls and I got out of the car and joined them, commenting to each other how unusual the cloud formations appeared, like popcorm suspended in the dense, dove-colored sky.
Then we came inside, and Travis suggested that we through a tornado drill, just for practice.
Still, looking out the windows on May 22, the sky merely appeared a neutral grey, not ominous at all, so Lauren and I stepped outside on the driveway to get some fresh air. I deadheaded the purple petunias that I had planted in my pots on Mother’s Day, just two weeks earlier, sticking the dead blooms in the pocket of my pants. As I worked, I glanced at Lauren, toddling in the driveway, relishing the feeling of the breeze as it ruffled her fine hair. Above her, in the eastern sky, I noticed how the clouds looked eerily like the ones that had formed a week and a half earlier when there had been the tornado warning, and I texted Travis about them.
Mammatus clouds over Joplin 40 minutes before the tornado
(Courtesy of Jkick626 on Wikimedia Commons)
Thoughts of our recent tornado drill filled my mind, so when Lauren and I came inside I went to the storm shelter, turned on its lights, and gathered up some of Lauren’s toys and books to put in there. I also got my purse, stuffed a pair of flip flops in it, then placed it on the dryer, which was on the way to the shelter.
Just in case.
Then I started preheating the oven. I was looking forward to the spinach phyllo pie that I’d bought myself for dinner. I wanted to keep Lauren occupied while I made her dinner, so I went to the living room, turned on the TV and put a Baby Einstein DVD in the player. We both waited, eyes fixated on the screen, until the familiar animated caterpillar appeared, indicating that the program was about to start. Lauren grinned at me with delight.
Then my phone rang. It was 5:11 p.m.
“This is The Weather Channel’s Chief Meteorologist Jim Cantore,” said a recorded voice. “The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for the area including Joplin, Missouri.”
I glanced outside. There were no signs of a storm; the air was still and the sky was bland. Still, I dutifully responded to the warning by picking up Lauren and heading for the shelter. We passed Micky in the laundry room, but I didn’t think it was necessary to bring him into the shelter with at that point. I wanted to listen to the weather radio first to find out where the storm was tracking. After all, it could be north of Joplin, just like it had been a week and a half earlier.
Then my thoughts turned to my big girls. Their dad was supposed to have picked them up from a party on my side of town at 5 p.m. I quickly dialed his number. He answered and told me that he’d already picked up the girls and had just pulled into his driveway on the other side of town.
I let out a deep breath.
While I was talking to him, I heard the city’s tornado sirens go off. Once Aaron assured me that he and the girls were headed to his basement, I ended the call and bolted the door of our storm shelter.
I turned on the weather radio, and heard reporters saying that the tornado warning was in effect until 6 p.m., and that they sounded the sirens with ample warning because it was such a slow-moving, powerful storm that they wanted to give people plenty of time to prepare.
I pulled out some toys to entertain Lauren while I continued to listen to the weather report. I thought about bringing Micky into the shelter, but then decided against it. I was already feeling claustrophobic in there with just the two of us, and bringing in an 80-pound fur ball might have pushed me over the edge.
I gave Lauren some water from a water bottle, and was surprised to see that my hands were shaking. How odd.
It felt like we’d been in the shelter forever. I turned on my phone to check the time: 5:35 p.m.
I turned my phone off so it wouldn’t interfere with the weather radio signal. The local reporters were now saying that there was a Doppler indicated tornado and that it was expected to enter from Kansas to Missouri on 32nd Street.
That was our area.
I immediately thought about Micky in the laundry room. I really needed to get him, but I didn’t want to risk leaving the shelter with Lauren. The laundry room was an interior room, and I hoped Micky would stay safe.
I turned on my phone, even though I knew it would interfere with the radio. I craved some sort of comfort, a way to access the outside world. The reporters (who were broadcasting from a station just up the road from me) were talking about how their power was beginning to flicker. A few seconds later, our power began to flicker. Luckily, I’d already turned on the lantern feature of my flashlight, which would keep the shelter illuminated in case we lost power.
Then the reporters started talking about baseball-sized hail. Seconds later, I heard hail banging against the metal of the garage door, quickly increasing in frequency and (it sounded like) size. I picked up my phone and started texting Travis: This is the largest freaking hail we…
I heard a low rumble, and threw down my phone.
The electricity went out.
The weather radio died. What happened to the backup batteries?
The rumble grew louder, closer. It sounded like the cars on a freight train, barreling toward our house. I’ve always hated the sound of a train; the intense roar and sheer power of it seemed to reverberate through every cell of my body, reminding me that, if I happened to get in its way, it would annihilate me in an instant.
This was the same sound, with the same message.
I drew Lauren in to me tightly and moved to the center of the storm shelter, thinking that we would be safest there in case any large objects impacted the sides.
I began chanting, Oh, my God, this is it. Oh, my God, this is it. Oh, my God, this is it. This was the nightmare that I’d feared for 39 years. It was actually, finally, mercilessly playing out on this Sunday.
I heard glass shattering and things banging as they hit the house. That was the eeriest sound: the banging. The hand of the angry monster was picking up objects in our neighborhood, and throwing them down in a temper tantrum. Why was it touching our things, destroying our homes, violating our lives?
None of this preparation – the storm shelter, the radio, weather alerts on my cell phone – none of it could stop the beast from having its way with us. As humans, we were no match for it. We were at its mercy.
I thought about the oven that I’d turned on 30 minutes earlier, and a new worry crept into my mind. What if a fire started? What if we became trapped in the shelter? Was the shelter fireproof? Even if it were, would we be able to breathe if smoke surrounded us?
Then my thoughts shifted to Micky. He, who was already fearful of storms, was in the laundry room – all alone. My nervous chanting changed from Oh, my God this is it, to Micky, be OK. Micky, be OK. Micky be OK. If anything happened to him, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.
Some time passed (was it a few seconds, a few minutes?) and the banging subsided. The roar grew faint and then disappeared. I expected it to be quiet then. I expected it to be over. Instead, what I heard was thunder, so loud and so fierce, that I just knew the storm was hovering right over our steel haven – I say right above the storm shelter because I truly believed that our house no longer had a roof on it.
I knew the tornado had passed, but I was still waiting for the cracks of thunder to dissipate. I stood up with Lauren and stared at the door handle, simultaneously wanting and dreading to know what was waiting on the other side. I felt my breath grow shallow and quick, and suddenly realized that I had begun to hyperventilate. I reached for some water and forced myself to take some deep breaths. Lauren studied me carefully, quietly. I swear she thought I was losing my mind. It was the expression on Lauren’s face that ultimately snapped me out of my panic.
The time between the crashes of thunder grew longer, and it was then that I heard a faint whimpering.
My instant relief knowing that he was alive turned to worry that he might be injured or buried under something. I called to him to reassure him that we were nearby.
A few minutes later, with a shaking hand, I opened the door and peered out. I was honestly confused when I saw the ceiling still covering the garage. I’d been certain that our roof must have been whisked away with the wind, exposing our little metal shelter to the elements.
I let out a deep breath.
We were lucky.
The garage door was torn off its frame, partially crumpled in a heap on the rear of my minivan. I could see slats of daylight peeking through where the garage door had been, but I couldn’t see any of the landscape outside.
Just then, the neighbor from the end of our street, Tom Apple, came by to see if we were okay. After reassuring him that we were, he left to go check on our other neighbors.
Once he’d left, I reached for my phone and called Aaron to see if he and the girls were okay. He answered the phone in an upbeat voice, so I assumed that the tornado had not gone past his house. “Are you okay?” I asked. Then the line went dead. At least he’d heard my voice and knew that I was fine.
I tried calling Travis, but couldn’t get through. I tried again. Nothing. I texted him: Tornado hit house. In my shocked state, I felt that statement communicated the situation clearly.
Which house? he texted back. I envisioned Travis, 10 hours away in Illinois, reading my message and thinking that I’d been watching the local news and saw that a house in a nearby community had been hit by a tornado, something that was common in our part of the country. What was not common was that this time, that house belonged to us.
Ours, I responded. While I waited for his response, I tried calling my friend Shanon. A month earlier we’d made a pact that she would come check on me to make sure I didn’t get trapped inside our storm shelter if there ever were a tornado. Amazingly, the call to Shanon went through. I asked her if she was okay, and she said yes. Then, she asked me the same question, and I told her I was fine, but our house had been hit. She asked me if I needed her to come get me, and I said yes. Then we formulated a plan: she would remain with her two children would send her husband Emerson to get me.
I let out a deep breath.
Relieved that help was on the way, I called my parents to let them know that I was fine. Somehow, this call went through, as well, but I was disappointed when their answering machine picked up. I left a message assuring them that Lauren and I were fine, and that we were going to Shanon’s house.
Having made my necessary phone calls, I decided it was time to assess the damage. I slipped on the flip flops that I had brought into the shelter, and finally emerged from the steel box. With my first step, a piece of glass crunched under my weight, reminding me how grateful I was that I remembered to bring shoes into the shelter with me.
I carefully made my way forward, stepping through the clothes that were thrown on the ground when the garment rack blew over, and some gift wrapping ribbon that was strewn across the ground (where had that come from?). I could see Micky standing in the doorway that leads from the garage into the house (did I leave that door open or had it blown open?). He was so excited to see us; the feeling was mutual. I’d wondered why he hadn’t come out to the shelter when I’d called for him, but as I walked through the debris, I understood that he probably couldn’t find a clear path.
After reassuring Micky, I contained him in the laundry room so that I could inspect the rest of the house. I was concerned that he would step on glass, and I knew that the laundry room was a safe place for him to be.
When I exited the laundry room, the first thing I saw was the kitchen window blown out, and debris scattered across the floor. Still, considering what I heard when I was in the shelter, I was surprised (and so, so relieved) that our house was even standing.
I didn’t look around the house any more just then. I wanted to get outside and get a better understanding of what happened. I opened the front door, and I was mesmerized.
My eyes skipped over the mangled mess in front of me, transfixing instead on the otherworldly sight on the horizon.
Swirling and churning, flashing and gnashing, the beast continued to plunder across town. The first thing that came to my mind when I saw this was the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant, unleashing a tempest of tortured apparitions and bolts of fire which shot through the people standing by the ark, bringing them to their knees, writhing in pain. Then, a rush of energy bursts forth from the ark, sweeping up the people and items in its path and spinning them violently in a vortex which is then swallowed up by an opening in the sky.
This is what I was reminded of as I looked eastward.
The wrath of God.
The Joplin Tornado (Part II): The Aftermath is coming soon.
*Feature photo from The Original Weather Blog. This site offers a detailed meteorological breakdown of the storm’s progress.