On May 22nd, 2011, an extreme EF5 tornado carved a 22-mile path of destruction through the center of Joplin, Missouri. Winds peaked at over 225 miles per hour, and it grew to over a mile wide. The tornado killed 160 people, destroyed 7,000 homes, and caused an estimated $2.8 billion worth of damage. It leveled the city’s only high school and moved a nine story hospital building four inches off its foundation, rendering it unusable.
Last week, I travelled with 32 members of my church to help thousands of volunteers rebuild Joplin. I had never seen the aftermath of a tornado, so I was shocked to find that a year later, neighborhoods that had been hit the hardest, still looked as though a bomb had gone off, destroying nearly everything in sight. New homes were being built, but they stood next to empty lots where all that remained were cement foundations, remnants of driveways, and brick stumps that once were chimneys. Joplin is a lush city with beautiful magnolia trees. But for the neighborhoods that stood in the tornado’s path, few trees remain.
I was fortunate enough to spend most of the week working on the home of Larry and Amy, a couple with three young boys. Larry and Amy were home with their kids when the tornado struck. Larry said that the day started with few clouds in the sky. In the afternoon, he felt the winds pick up, and then he heard the tornado alarm. As the wind gathered strength, he heard a second alarm and decided that the family should move into the basement.
When the family was safely downstairs, Larry peered out the basement window and saw a dark sky. He then saw a 2×4 fly through the air like a bullet and pierce the side of his neighbor’s house. Knowing that a tornado was on its way, he bolted upstairs to grab some blankets and a flashlight. Larry’s dog was under a bed and was too frightened to move. With his arms full, Larry had no choice but to leave the dog there and rejoin his wife and kids. The family huddled under the blanket as the tornado moved over their home.
Larry said, “The air pressure suddenly changed, and our ears went pop, pop, pop. It sounded like we were under a bridge with a freight train speeding over our heads. It was so loud. Then I felt our house get torn apart above us. Thank goodness we had a retaining wall running through our basement, because the chimney fell right into the middle of the house. The chimney probably would have fallen on us if it wasn’t for that wall.”
When the tornado passed, all that was left of Larry and Amy’s house was a pile of bricks and broken studs. What belongings remained were scattered everywhere and their cars were totaled. A car that Larry had never seen was lying on top of his gas meter. Before the tornado, that car was parked in the hospital parking lot, over a mile away. Fortunately, Larry, Amy and the kids survived unharmed. But I had not seen a dog running around our construction site, so I didn’t ask what happened to the boys’ pet.
If having their lives torn apart by a tornado wasn’t bad enough, the reason we were helping build their house was because a contractor, who was supposed to build them a new home, took most of their insurance money and disappeared. Larry also told us of looters who came into town shortly after the tornado and tried to steal what little they had left. His anger was palpable as he told us stories of other people who had been ripped off by opportunists who took advantage of Joplin’s suffering.
Catholic Charities USA read about Amy and Larry’s story in the local paper, so they offered to build them a house with donated materials and volunteer labor. Our group was one of many that had worked on their home. When I asked Larry what it was like to have different people at his home every week, his anger disappeared. He said, “The volunteers? They are incredible. You guys are incredible.”
His friend, Sean, was standing beside him, nodding. He said, “We just couldn’t say enough about how thankful we are for all the volunteers.”
At the end of our last day of work, we gave Larry, Amy, and Sean a hug and said good-bye to their kids. I was happy with the work we did, but we left Larry and Sean to finish the projects we had not completed. Volunteers from all over the country are helping rebuild Joplin, but it’s the people of Joplin who stay and do the hard work to restore their lives.
On the way back to the hotel after our last day of work, we drove by a pile of rubble that was once Joplin High School. I had been there earlier in the week, but in the days between my visits, someone must have climbed the fence and changed the school’s sign.
I am confident that Larry, Amy, and the rest of Joplin will persevere and carry on.