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From the buzzards perspective...

Random articles that are created as I travel, experience new things, meet new people and discover new insights.

  • Writer's pictureEddy Weiss

May 20, 2011. A dozen years later.

The tornado first touched down in Newton County, Missouri just east of the Missouri-Kansas line. There was already something different about this storm as it presented multiple vortices that kept continually rotating around the main part of the storm. There was no reason to think that anything could go wrong on such a beautiful and momentous day.

All across the city of Joplin, celebrations were well underway. It was graduation weekend and the weather could not have been better. Of course, it was also Sunday so churches began preparing for evening services and the town was quite bustling at 5:17 p.m. when the warning was issued and the sirens began to sound.

The warning was not heeded as it should have been, but the positivity in the air due to the day’s events probably attributed to much of that. The warning clearly stated that the are of concern was for Northwestern Newton and Southeastern portions of Cherokee County, Kansas. I can attest to the fact that a majority of folks really thought that the storm, while serious, would not bring its full wrath to town but would stay rural.

The tornado moved east-northeast and strengthened to EF1 intensity as it continued through rural areas towards Joplin, snapping trees and power poles and damaging outbuildings. While all this sounds horrible, it is pretty normal for a sunny day in May.

Pastor Charlie Burnett and 52 members of his congregation were huddled in the Harmony Heights Baptist Church praying and waiting.

Panic ensued only when the tornado grew wider and tracked into the more densely populated southwest corner of the city near the Twin Hills Country Club. It heavily damaged several homes at a subdivision in this area at up to EF3 strength. The tornado continued to cause EF3 damage as it moved through another subdivision just east of Iron Gates Road. Numerous homes were destroyed and multiple vehicles tossed around, some of which were thrown onto or rolled into homes. The tornado reached EF4 intensity just before crossing S. Schifferdecker Ave.

Back in Harmony Heights, the sound was deafening as the group held on to each other as the storm ravaged the city. It took only moments for the church to be smashed. 3 women were killed as they hid from the monster in the hallway of the church which had no basement.

Nearby, at yet another church, nearly 100 took shelter in a classroom. Floyd Rockwell was one of those people. In his 70’s, Floyd laid across his wife as their church was flattened thus saving both of their lives but not everyone was as fortunate.

Damage became remarkably widespread and catastrophic at and around the nearby St. John’s Regional Medical Center which lost nearly every window on three sides, interior walls, ceilings, and part of its roof; its life flight helicopter was also blown away and destroyed. Loss of backup power caused five fatalities, and the nine-story building was so damaged that it was deemed structurally compromised, and later torn down.

The St. John's Complex

According to the National Weather Service office in Springfield, Missouri, such extreme structural damage to such a large and well-built structure likely indicated winds at or exceeding 200 mph.

It was later determined that the winds may have exceeded 250 mph. To put 200+ mph winds into perspective, vehicles in the hospital parking lot were thrown into the air and mangled beyond recognition, including a semi-truck that was tossed 125 yards. Small debris from the hospital, including X-rays, medical reports, and dental records, was found in Greene and Polk counties many miles to the east.

A nursing home, Franklin Technology Center, St. Mary's Catholic Church and School, and the Joplin High School were all destroyed along the tornado’s path. The list of actual damage is too long to list.

The tornado devastated a large portion of the city of Joplin, damaging nearly 8,000 buildings, and of those, completely destroying over 4,000. The damage, which included major facilities like one of Joplin's two hospitals as well as much of its basic infrastructure, amounted to a total of $2.8 billion, making the Joplin tornado the costliest single tornado in U.S. history.

That tornado killed 158 people that day with an additional unknown number of “indirect deaths”. Initially, five additional deaths were declared after an outbreak of mucormycosis infected 18 people, the outbreak being caused by the tornado’s effect on the actual earth in Joplin. After many years of research, I was able to determine that the number of mucormycosis victims was much higher.

In its wake, the tornado also left over 1,150 injured and seeking medical attention.

The scene was like from a movie. It was hard to believe any of it was real. From the minutes after the tornado to the months that followed, the smells and sounds changed, but it was 9 months before there was any sense of normalcy. Amidst the sirens and screaming, yelling and shouting, there was the pungent smell of natural gas, gasoline and smoke in the air that quickly irritated the lungs and throat. Months later the smells and sounds were different but no better. The smell of rotting food, mold and decomposition lay thick in the summer air and the sounds of chain saws lasted well into late fall.

The glimmer of hope was the flags.

It was a time of grieving and there was no escape from the sense of loss one felt standing amidst the rubble piles which never seemed to go away; they only moved and became more “sorted”. It was heartbreaking to watch older couples as they would hold onto each other sifting through their belongings and it as you traveled through town, you would inevitably come across a tattered family photo or marriage license that you knew somebody was searching for. The glimmer of hope was the flags. They were everywhere. As quickly as one was found it was erected on whatever was handy; closet poles, antennas, chimneys, telephone poles, trees. Everywhere there were flags that seemed to proudly proclaim that it would be okay again someday because of who we are and what we know we can do.

This week is the anniversary of that tragic attack on Joplin, Missouri. It was May 22, 2011. For those of you that know me well, you know that I carry to this day my own memories and handicaps from that storm. It is fair to say that this will forever be one of this nation’s tragedies that should be remembered, not just for the lessons it carries in weather warnings and community preparedness, but for the hundreds if not thousands of true heroes that emerged from the rubble that day.


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