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Archive for Thursday, May 26, 2011

Residents share stories from the broken heart of Joplin

May 26, 2011

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By the numbers: 2011 tornado season

Figures about the tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., on Sunday and the 2011 tornado season. All statistics represent the official record of the National Weather Service, which covers 1950 to present day.

Joplin tornado

• People killed: 125.

• Survivors rescued: 9.

• Injured: More than 900.

• Buildings destroyed: An estimated 8,000.

• About the tornado: Deadliest single tornado since records began in 1950. Storm Prediction Center says unofficial records show last single tornado with greater death toll occurred in 1947. National Weather Service rated the storm an EF5, the highest rating based on inflicted damage. Winds exceeded 200 mph.

Tornado count

• Tornadoes to strike Joplin: 1.

• Tornado reports made so far in the U.S. in May: 187, through May 24.

• Average number of tornadoes in May during the past decade: 298.

• Record for tornadoes in May: 542, in 2003.

• Tornado reports made so far in 2011: 1,228, through May 24.

• Average number of tornadoes in a single year during the past decade: 1,274.

• Highest recorded number of tornadoes in a single year: 1,817, in 2004.

Death toll

• People killed in Joplin tornado: 125.

• People killed in 2011 prior to Joplin tornado: 365.

• People killed in 2011: 505, through morning of May 25.

• Highest recorded death toll in a single year: 519, in 1953.

• People killed in Oklahoma from storms this week: 9

• People killed in Kansas: 2

• People killed in Arkansas: 4

Source: Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr; National Weather Service; Storm Prediction Center preliminary tornado data; FEMA.

— Standing amid the ruins of what had been a Goodyear service center, Robert Alves turns in place to take a grim inventory.

That twisted pile next door, he says, was a Jiffy Lube. The shell out back there, a sporting goods store. Over there was a Pizza Hut. And that massive heap across 20th Street used to be the Home Depot.

“Lots of used-to-be’s around here,” the 36-year-old mechanic says. “ALL used-to-be’s.”

Even harder to identify is what will be.

The tornado that tore through Joplin Sunday essentially bifurcated this city of 50,000, carving a west-to-east path up to a mile wide that almost beggars description.

“Think about a lawnmower, taking the biggest lawnmower, and just mowing everything down,” says Heather Marsh, whose house was in the shadow of the shattered St. John’s Regional Medical Center. “It truly makes you feel how insignificant (life) really is. You feel so small and helpless.”

Before Sunday, the former mining boomtown was perhaps best known — if known at all to many Americans — as a sometime home base for outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and as a stop along Historic Route 66. Now, it is the site of the nation’s eighth-deadliest tornado.

At least 125 are dead, and possibly hundreds remain unaccounted for. More than 900 were injured.

On Wednesday, arduous rescue and recovery work went on, with crews repeating grid searches that started immediately after the storm. No new survivors were pulled from wreckage of the city’s neighborhoods, but officials said after checking some areas for a fourth time that they planned a fifth sweep. Leaders of St. John’s sent in structural engineers to see if the hospital could be saved.

“It truly was like a bomb went off almost on every floor,” said Gary Pulsipher, the hospital’s chief executive.

Joplin’s heart was certainly broken by the storm. But what about its spirit? To gauge that, listen to people along the tornado’s pitiless path.

• • •

Optometrists Justin and Rebecca Stilley had just taken their daughters — Ella and Eva, 3 and 5 — for ice cream and were on their way back to their split-level home in the Cedar Ridge neighborhood on the west end of town. When news of the approaching storms came over the radio, the 36-year-old father did something he’d never done before — he ran a red light.

Sirens were wailing across town when the family reached home. As the girls prepared to go into their “hiding place” — a crawl space with three concrete walls at the back of the garage — Justin Stilley stepped out on the back deck and saw “a big, wide mass” of black, swirling with debris.

Huddled with her children on a plaid blanket beside a drain pipe as the house bucked and rocked above them, Rebecca Stilley recited the Lord’s Prayer, over and over.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name ...”

When the storm had passed, the Stilleys emerged to find their roof gone, their daughters’ bedrooms open to the sky. Justin Stilley’s eyes well with tears as he contemplates what would have happened had the twister struck in the middle of the night.

“They wouldn’t have made it,” he chokes.

• • •

The storm tore random chunks out of Cedar Ridge and nearby Sunset Ridge. There, houses are still identifiable as houses. Neighborhoods still look like neighborhoods. Trees still had their foliage and bark.

But as it headed east, the twister apparently developed a focus and, jogging slightly north, grew into a monster roughly a mile wide.

Across 26th Street from St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Heather Marsh was taking a nap while her 8-year-old son, Hayden, played video games on his Wii. When she heard the sirens, the 31-year-old single mother didn’t think much of it; they went off all the time, and nothing ever came of it.

When they stopped suddenly, she figured it was a false alarm. Then her phone rang.

“Get in the tub!” her mother, Vivian Fannin, was shouting. “Get in the tub!”

Lightning flashed. Then the sirens began sounding again, louder than she’d ever heard them before.

She gave Hayden a handheld video game, tossed some pillows and blankets into the bathtub and told him to climb in. She grabbed their 3-year-old boxer-pug mix, Poppie, and climbed in after him. But as much as she pleaded, the family’s black-and-white cat, Charizard, simply stared at them from bathroom door. (The cat has not been found.)

Suddenly, the little “crackerbox” house she was buying from her parents collapsed around them.

With Hayden between her legs and a board wedged against her neck, Marsh began texting everyone in her cell phone’s address book.

“We’re trapped,” she punched. “Help us.”

When they heard the sounds of people outside, Marsh and Hayden began screaming. Guided by the light from her phone, men dug mother, son and dog from the wreckage.

“And this sweet breath of air came to us,” Marsh remembers. “And I just breathed in as deep as I could.”

She emerged into what had been her living room and surveyed the ravaged landscape. The only identifiable landmark for miles was the blown-out, windowless hulk of St. John’s.

• • •

Continuing east and slightly north, the storm raked Main Street and began marching up 20th Street — one of the city’s key east-west corridors. Here, the cross streets are named after states, and the damage got progressively worse as the storm passed over Iowa, Indiana, Florida and Mississippi — states that know the destructive powers of nature all too well.

That Sunday, Joplin High School held graduation ceremonies on the campus of Missouri Southern State University. Misty Westfall was driving graduate Amanda, 18, and her brother David, 19, home in her red pickup truck while husband David followed in another vehicle.

When they reached a roundabout, David Westfall continued straight on down to 32nd Street, but his wife decided to take one of her shortcuts.

She took 20th.

Before long, the sky turned inky black and the rain was coming down in sheets. Misty Westfall pulled into the parking lot at St. James Methodist Church, near the corner of Florida.

Suddenly, the truck was being lifted off the ground and rocked violently from side to side. During a brief calm, like the calm in the eye of a hurricane, they heard someone from a nearby house screaming at them to come inside, and they ran for it.

The family took shelter in an interior closet, the only part of the house that would survive.

When the storm had passed, the children went out to help dig survivors from the rubble. Misty Westfall found an old man in an SUV; there was a board protruding from his neck, but she checked for a pulse anyway. There was none.

When David Westfall reached home and his family wasn’t there, he picked his way back east along 20th, cutting through backyards. When he found his wife, they locked in a long embrace — and then he lectured her about taking shortcuts.

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