My first person experience of surviving the horrendous F5 tornado in the Ozarks.
| Sundays are the days of the week everyone (usually) considers to be wrapped in adjectives. Relaxing, recovering, peaceful, or even joyful. This day may even be considered the day that soothes your mentality after a harsh and bitter week. Although, this particular Sunday in May of 2011, my family of three, would describe this particular day of the week everything but a pleasant term.
The sun was shining outside, my 3 year old son playing on his Hot Wheels four-wheeler, and my husband was preparing the grill. As for myself, I was running all around our house picking up those annoying knick knacks that guest do not notice, yet you think they do. Friends of ours were coming over for a simple grilling get together. Alright, before continuing any further, I should inform you of some relative information of my upbringing. My dad grew up roofing houses, and made a nice career out of it. He became one of the most well known roofers in our county, and surrounding counties. Weather was always on the television growing up, to inform him if work was an option that day or not. Watching Scooby-Doo or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became more of a chore than cleaning my sisters bathroom was. Any sign of a storm being slightly severe, my parents did not hesitate to keep my sister and I safe. We quickly took cover, yet we typically found out the empty shingles bag on the front porch didn't even move.
Now that you are aware of my childhood storm annoyance, you may understand a little more as to why I focused more on the Mickey Mouse laying on the living room floor, than what was about to happen within the next hour. Our friends did inform us of a storm heading our way, possibly tornadoes. My automatic prediction from past experience, and weather reports usually confirmed were accurate, snow meant it was sunny and clear skies meant "watch out for hail." In Missouri, weather is very unpredictable. Snow in May was not much of a shock anymore. Although, as I decided to be considerate for our friends from Minnesota, that ridiculous channel was suddenly on our television screen. I scowled just looking at my childhood rival, but I was pleased to have happy friends and guest.
The cooking outside was nearly finished, and I was preparing my little guys plate. Suddenly time flew by, as did my eyes to my son who just appeared inside screaming. I assumed he got into trouble, which was not a shock. I took him into the bathroom to calm him down. Nobody wants a yelling child when visiting. While wiping his face, I hear pounding and slamming on the exterior walls of the house. The nerve racking thuds then began bullying our defenseless windows. The storm has arrived, and little did I know what kind of disaster was behind it. With my arms wrapped around my son, who hushed his recent screams, I heard my name being called. "Where are you!?" I responded quickly that we were in the bathroom. Were we leaving? If so, where are we going? Answers to those questions left my mind abruptly when my husband, his friend and wife joined us in the bathroom. They had fear on their faces and terror in their voices. My body became numb, yet holding my child was all I could manage. He and I sat quiet. We sat firm. Motionless. Too afraid to scream as tree limbs welcomed themselves into our home. I held my sons face against my chest so he would not witness the outside limbs quickly form piles on our bathroom floor beside us. The noise of shattered glass, sticks and 2x4 boards hustled inside as if they tried to seek shelter from a monster. It was a monster. Within about five minutes, the beast was no longer interested in our home. We made it. What on earth was that?
I continued to hold him. Needless to say, he had no problem reaching for the sticks that laid beside us. "No baby, it is not a time to play." My husband and his friend believed the storm had passed. I was consciously aware of my husbands annoying trait, his curiosity. Which is more nosy than an old cat lady that everyone knows. As expected, he decided to open the bathroom door and have himself a look. The door shut rather quickly followed by one or possibly two choice words. That might be slightly exaggerated. "We have no house honey. It is gone. All of it." What is he talking about? As I looked around the bathroom, I knew our window definitely needed replaced, and possibly some exterior work done. Alright, we need some extreme repairs, but that doesn't mean the thing is completely gone. My friend follows our ever so brave husbands, and stops at the door. She turned around and we made eye contact. The look on her face confirmed my doubt that I still was unaware of. She took my son to allow me the chance to get a glimpse. That is just what I wanted, perhaps all I could handle. Our house was gone. I stood in the bathroom doorway and never imagined I could clearly see our neighbors front yard, across the street. At least what used to be a yard was now only rubbish. The monster did a toll on our neighborhood, and then some.
On a regular morning, my husband would go to work and I would get our son ready for daycare. We were fortunate to live in a town quiet enough to sit on the front porch and sip coffee, as anyone could who lived in the country. The two of us would listen to the high school band practice every morning, watch squirrels chase each other up the trees, and had a blissful sweet view. I couldn't say that from our front porch that day. Looking out towards the school yard, I could picture the band practicing, except I imagined it as a horror film. The uniforms black. Sad music. Bodies walking through a maze. There was nothing clear to us. The train tracks down the street mislead us to believe it was active, when really it was just that beast growling at all these families we called neighbors. What did we do? Nobody climbed your beanstalk and disturbed you. Why us? I imagined the many families who probably haven't had the time to ask that question yet, for they were still looking in shock, looking for their belongings, their family even. Sunday is calm and quiet they say. "They" don't even know.
The four of us gather little blankets before the frame of what we use to call shelter and home, collapsed. My car was the only vehicle that was capable of transporting us away from the devastation. A Toyota had my blessing that day considering I have always favored Chevrolet. Toyota gained a fan that day. Five scared bodies, four flat tires, three cars upside down, two terrified parents all in one defeated town. The cries, screams and terror we all observed was unbearable. Officers attempting to control traffic, people leaving their vehicles abandoned in the middle of the street just to get to their hopeful standing home to check on loved ones, people on the sidewalks burying their heartbroken face between their knees. I looked up to the sky as my husband encouraged my car to conquer the war on the road, I thanked a power that showed its existence that day. How could a whole graduation be moved from its expected building to the other side of town, which was untouched. That "expected building" was demolished without a known scheduled wrecking ball. How did our huge gumball tree fall the opposite way than the other trees in our backyard. The trees that took over our dining room and bedroom. Why did the gumball tree refuse to fall on our bathroom? Was it because our bathroom was occupied by all of us? How did my car manage to remove our two families from a caving in house? How does a person absorb that. You can't. Trying to figure it out will only leave you in disappointment. I questioned myself for even thanking the sky, for it was the reason I was currently looking up and asking myself these questions. Why did you send that horrible beast? What did we do?
Looking back now, I find it difficult to drive through that town. I find it difficult to see that street, cause all I see is the vision I witnessed on our mournful drive that day. I see the people crying. The people hiding their faces. The officers who held their emotions back to attempt to soothe us. I try not to wonder what happened to those people after they stopped crying. Did they find what they were looking for? If so, was it a relief to them, or was it worse than what I witnessed them fearing? Were the ones on the sidewalk currently going through a result of what others were afraid of? No, there will never be a time when I go to that town without asking myself those questions. Yet, we were one of the few who survived. When people realize how difficult it is for a person like myself to be so grateful and blessed to have all of my family and both friends safe, yet so miserably effected, I hope they remember the ones who didn't come out as fortunate as we did. I hope they realize that their pain is much worse than ours. Our son sees video clips of the monsters mess, ours included. He sees commercials, books and hears the stories. Although he was young, he does revisit the memory of crawling on the platform of our once home, in search for my cat. He saw his Mickey Mouse covered in fiberglass. We saw our photos smashed and replaced by a deformed family caused by rain, insulation and mud. Songs on the radio are not what they use to be. School bands, are not what they used to be. A small chance of rain flurries, are not what they used to be. That enemy of mine on the square screen in the living room, is not what it used to be. A night in bed, enjoying the trinkle of raindrops against the window, is no longer relaxing. My husband will now wake to see me curled up and terrified. I shake and quiver at the sound of a loud crash of lightening. It is a terrible experience. Sunday storms are not what they used to be, neither is my family. My family is stronger now.
This is the first time I have sat down and wrote about this. I predict it will be the only time as well. If there just so happen is a "next time", I will be sure to place a full roll of toilet paper beside me, rather than a few paper towels. I hope in this first person experience, somebody out there got something out of it. My family is stronger because we fought for us. Tragedy is difficult, and I have kept in my mind that there is always somebody out there who has it worse. I will continue to keep a smile on my face daily, but that doesn't mean I haven't experienced what many people have not. It doesn't mean I am not hurting inside. When I am going through Joplin, a simple smile from anyone at that time, will be appreciated and helpful. Even though there is a smile on me, those questions remain. Yet nobody knows it. So, as that saying is about doing something nice for someone because you never know what they are struggling with, please believe it.