Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Destruction in the Heartland....part 2...the May 22nd Tornado in Joplin

Monday May 23rd,
Running through neighborhoods, armed with only a flashlight, cell phone and first aid kit, jumping power lines, downed trees and debris, it felt as if reality was suspended, a horror film was taking place; I was an extra on the set.
Yesterday, May 22nd, was a muggy, May afternoon. The plan was to work around the house for a few hours while the sun was still shining, then drive to Webb City to spend the evening working in the darkroom, developing photos. We knew there was a chance for severe weather, but assumed that we would be safe in the basement.
When we pulled up, the first round of tornado sirens were going off. We went to the basement, turned on the radio and waited for the storm to hit. At first, we joked about the storm, not knowing that that Joplin would soon be treated as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.
The radio correspondents were keeping us up-to-date as we watched the radar on our phones. Eventually, the reports from people on the street started to get more and more serious. People started calling to check on us. We were fine.
Then we found out our friend’s windows were blown from their house as they cowered under a mattress. A caller on the radio was driving down Rangeline, in tears as he listed the massive devastation of businesses and homes.
I stood by the radio, listening. Trying to remain calm, optimistic.
It was apparent that we needed to get out of there. I couldn’t call my mom—she lived south of the friend’s whose house was condemnable. She lived between their house and the hospital, a direct hit for the tornado.
We took off for Joplin, heeding the warnings of massive traffic jams on I44, we made our way down Main street, towards my mom’s neighborhood.
As soon as we got to the residential streets, the roads seemed to be blockaded in every direction by traffic jams, log jams and debris. There was literally no way to get there by car, a few blocks felt like miles; we were so close. We decided to make our way around, back to our house, so we could put on decent shoes, get a first aid kit and make sure our own home wasn’t destroyed.
After spending over an hour in traffic, we were stuck navigating around emergency crews, curious people, and people like us, trying to find our loved ones and get them to safety.
We drove up the alley to the house—a few small limbs lay in the yard, but the plastic rainbow flower, we stuck in the garden to scare away the moles was still spinning, unscathed, as entire oaks in our neighborhood were felled in the street from the F4 winds.
The relief of knowing that everything you own hasn’t been scattered across the city…The relief of knowing that you have a home to come home to….
After packing a small overnight back, sitting it by the door, grabbing the first aid kit, and a flashlight, we took off for mom’s house. It was tempting to stop and talk to neighbors, but it was evident that her home was a direct hit.
Running, dodging traffic, panting…..we reached the area where Irving elementary used to stand and everything we could see in either direction was just flattened. It was so disorienting. All I could say was, “Oh, my god. Oh My god.”
I kept telling myself to remain calm. Getting hysterical would not help find mom.
We ran between what used to be St. Mary’s and Irving elementary, on 26th, and I saw a familiar face, my JR. High P.E. teacher was walking with his family, trying to help in any way possible. I told him I was trying to get to my mom’s apartment, near the nursing home. He told me to turn around and take 26th towards St. John’s to moffett. He walked with us for a few minutes….
“Coach,” I said. “Remember back in Jr. High, when you made us run that mile?”
“Yeah….do you wish you would’ve tried a little bit harder?”
“Haha, yeah…but I’ve been practicing, who would’ve thought I would actually ever need that skill?”
We reached 26th, and took off west about a block to moffet. I lost track of Coach after that. He was lost in a sea of firemen, stranded people, emergency personnel, aid workers, injured citizens.
The nursing home beside my mom’s complex was rubble. Her apartments were nearly leveled. I climbed over an apartment, nothing more than a mounded pile of wood, groceries, lace curtains, flowered furniture cushions, leaves, limbs, broken glass, nails, power wires.
When I rounded the corner, I could see people standing in the street. Mom was huddled on the curb, wet, dirty, bleeding, wearing pink pajamas, covered in a towel, her little dog sat beside her, shaking. Her friend Robert, had made it there before I could. Someone had made a turnakit from a black belt around her leg. Her foot was covered in some paper towels, when pulled away, they revealed a bloody gash, meat hanging out, badly in need of stitches.
Everyone took a few minutes in the relief that we had found each other—alive. As I tried to remain calm, and come up with a plan, it was obvious that my car was too far---almost 2 miles away—and mom could never walk that far with her injury. An ambulance would not be able to get to her, there was too much damage, but she couldn’t sit there until dark, we had to get her out of there.
I wandered back towards the nursing home and found an unused wheel chair. I took it back over to her, we were able to load her, and push her over limbs, splintered wood, shingles, as we got help from strangers to get her to the triage unit.
The sun was shining, setting in the west. It illuminated the eerie, puffy gray and pink clouds above the St. Mary’s Catholic church. The church was little more than a few metal beams, some bricks, but the iron cross still stood across the, a token symbol of hope: the only recognizable structure amidst the chaos.
In the distance, I could see St. John’s—the shell of the hospital rising above the flattened landscape.  Behind us, a house burned, thick black smoke rolled into the sky.
The triage unit was in the parking lot of the nursing home.
Elderly patients lay on bare mattresses, blankets, or the wet ground, waiting for medical attention. One man, with long hair, and blue shorts, lay on his side, huddled under a towel, wide-awake. The man’s legs were bloody, as he lay waiting for someone to tend to his injuries.
On their foreheads, someone had drawn with sharpie, a ‘1’, ‘2’, or ‘3’ denoting their condition. One woman, lay unmoving on a bare mattress, staring up at the sky, her blue eyes blinking, her head was caked with blood, her white hair, stained with dirt.
 I wanted to go over to the man and the woman, rub their hand, stroke their hair, they way a mother would comfort a sleeping child. Tell them help was on the way, do something to comfort them---but  I knew that I would lose it. I wouldn’t be able to keep my composure. If I tried to bring them comfort, it would slip into a crying mess, and I needed to stay strong…the sun was setting and I needed to get my mom, her dog and myself to safety.
Mom’s head was marked with a sharp ‘3’, a Harry Potter lightening bolt. An ambulance would be transporting her to a medical station somewhere in town. Robert went back to mom’s apartment to search for her medications while mom recounted the scary details of the tornado.
She had been standing outside when the first set of sirens when off, then she went inside….she was sitting on the couch when the hail started. She when to the door to close it, but the door wouldn’t close, she kept pushing, but it became impossibly loud. She kept screaming for her dog to “HIDE! CHARLIE, HIDE!” The door flew backwards, pinning her against the wall, the screen door exploded, the roof was there, and then it was gone…she was looking at the ceiling, and then suddenly, it was nothing but sky.
When the tornado had passed, she climbed through the apartment, searching for her dog, dripping blood throughout the house. She stood, huddled in the hallway while it was raining and then finally made it back to the front door.
 When Robert returned with her medications we stuffed them into her purse, filled to the brim with just a few belongings: wallet, glasses, checkbook, a few pictures. Mom sat shivering in her wet pink pajamas, shoeless. Her blue toenails peeked out from the first aid bandage we had applied. Bits of sheet rock and leaves were in her hair, her eyes and face were red and puffy from crying.
Just before dark, they loaded her into an ambulance, told us she would be taken to memorial hall. We headed home, carrying her limping 20lb daschund, the smell and hiss of leaking natural gas, the crunch of broken glass under our feet.
Cell phone service was spotty. I could make a few calls and get a few texts, but usually they all came at once…it was difficult to respond or contact everyone.
We went to Julie’s, who still had electricity. When we walked in, there were 3 sweet little girls sitting in the living room. I didn’t to scare them with what I had just seen. I wanted to make phone calls, but service was so bad.
 I really wanted to watch the news, the weather. I wanted to see what the outside world was seeing of the disaster on CNN and the Weather Channel—I had been at ground zero, and I just wanted to sit in silence and watch it from a TV, pretend that it wasn’t real. It didn’t feel real. It felt like a disaster in a movie.  
It was nearly impossible to make phone calls. I received only three calls. The first was to tell me that mom was at a temporary medical center on 7th street. The second was to tell me that she was at the state line medical center in Galena KS. The third was to tell me to pick her up, she was okay. She could walk, with help…such a relief, nothing was broken. I picked her up at a medical center in Galena KS at about 1:30 a.m.
It was a sleepless night. I was awake at 2:45, posting photos on FB, and awake before 6:00 a.m. My spotty service became relatively clear as people fell asleep.
I didn’t go to school today (Monday the 23rd, the time of writing this) I am dreading tomorrow. I do not want to put on a happy fa├žade and pretend that everything is okay. It is not okay. Nothing is okay. Nothing is normal. There is so much destruction everywhere. I have no electricity at my house.
I don’t want to stay here either. Watching the weather channel all day, trying to distract myself with the food network.
The news is calling this ‘Destruction in the Heartland’….I want to cry, but I feel so lucky that my family is safe, my house is safe….Trees are down and a few houses are crushed in my neighborhood, I live 4 blocks from utter and total destruction.

Tuesday, May 24th
The sun is out! Hurray! The rain has stopped for a bit. I am at school. This morning, I heard on the radio that two police officers were struck by lightening yesterday.

Today I went home. Electricity is on at my house. I drove my mom to the location of her old apartment to look through her belongings at about 7:00 a.m.   I climbed through the thick wet insulation, the shredded piles of wood and furniture and recovered my brother’s baby book, a few paintings that I had painted in high school, some photos, some clothing, and other belongings that were still salvageable.

Mom stood by the car, leaning on her walker, coaching about where things might be stashed or hidden or buried.  After loading the vehicle, I dropped much of the stuff off at my house, bringing it to school to fill up my drying wracks with the wet pages and photos and documents from my brother’s baby book. He’s grown up with his own son now…but it seemed like one of the most important things to save.

Driving through the town....it is just unbelievable. The news shows damage, but seeing it for real...it is a nightmare. Looking at buildings that used to be schools, day cares, and homes....in splinters....it is terrifying.
I will try to post some pictures following this post. Thanks for reading.


Maria Ontiveros said...

My heart goes out to you and your family.

Kate said...

My thoughts are with you and your area. I'm so sorry. What a terrible time. I'm really thankful that you and your family are OK.

JenCoen said...

I am just so happy that you are safe! My prayers are with you and your family!!

Sara said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. It was a beautifully-written account of a horrific event. I'm so happy to hear that you and your family are safe, and my thoughts are with you and everyone in Joplin.

Josie Mai said...

Nellie, I love you. Just reading this. I appreciate you sharing all of it. I still haven't seen it up close; I'm trying to stay away and I'm terrified to witness the scope of it yet. Thanks for your bravery.

Rachel said...

Glad to hear that you are okay and your home was spared. Sending positive thoughts and virtual hugs your way.

Alicia said...

I saw your comment on "smile and wave" and came to visit your blog. I sat here in tears reading your account of what you went through. I constantly worry about my family and can only imagine the state of horror and fear I would feel in your situation. So thankful that you found your mom safe.