A year ago, this was what my brother and sister in law’s house looked like. This weekend, we went to Joplin to help them hang pictures and shelves. Their new house is beautiful, but the scars on the town are still obvious. The scars inside the people aren’t, but they’re there.
A year ago, my mother in law called to tell us a tornado had hit Joplin, and she couldn’t get hold of my husband’s brother, Jeff, and his wife, Vicky. We were sure it was nothing — the phone lines were down, the cell services overwhelmed. And then we saw the pictures on the news. The hospital was trashed, and houses destroyed. We got a little nervous, but tornadoes happen to someone else, right? To reassure ourselves, I got on MapQuest and typed in “St. John’s hospital” as one point and Jeff’s address as the other. They were less than a mile apart.
My daughter and I stared at the computer screen, and I said, “Oh, God.” How do I tell my husband? I thought. I called him in to look at the screen, and he said the same thing. The tornado touched down at 21st street; Jeff and Vicky lived at 25th.
A few hours later, Jeff called. He and Vicky had survived, but their house was destroyed. Their pets were gone. Their car was upside down on top of the debris of their neighbors’ house. They didn’t even have a wallet or a purse.
They were in a restaurant when the sirens went off. The restaurant didn’t have a basement, and the storm was coming from the north, so they figured if they drove south to their house, they’d drive away from it. It seemed to be working — the sky cleared, and the sun was actually shining to the east. But the clouds to the west looked funny. They had little pieces curling down. Vicky didn’t like the look of them. Then it got dark.
A lot of people probably saw the tornado; they just didn’t know it. All they could see was a wide rain downpour. What they didn’t realize was, that wasn’t just a downpour. It was the tornado itself, a mile wide. It was on the ground for eighteen miles, 36 minutes, moving slowly, making sure it took the time to chew up everything.
When I saw them this weekend, I was struck at how damaged the town still is, and how deep the scars run in the people. Vicky said she used to love storms. She loved the sound of thunder, loved watching the clouds gather. Now she gets anxious. She doesn’t like being outside when the clouds thicken. She doesn’t like loud noises.
This is what it looks like when you drive down a typical Missouri street. The trees are relentless — they will claw their way back every time you cut them down, crowding the houses, linking branches over the streets.
As you drive through Joplin, you know when you’re getting to the damaged part, even though most of the destroyed houses and rubble have been cleared away. Because the trees are just gone. The few that remain all lean the same direction, as if they are permanently bending to the wind that twisted them that day.
People describe the sound of a tornado as a freight train, but Vicky says it just sounds like really loud claps of thunder that never end, one blending into the next. She was trying to coax Jeff and the pets into the hallway of the house — the only interior space — when she heard that sound. The dog, Daisy, had done what she always did when scared — she ran into the master bedroom and hid under the bed. One cat, Samba, already a skittish critter, had disappeared into one of his many hidey holes. And Tango, the other cat, was hiding in the tub and wouldn’t come out. Vicky was holding the bathroom door open, calling the cat, when suddenly the bathroom door was ripped from her hand, pulled out of the frame, and the bathroom was gone. She and Jeff fell to the floor in each other’s arms. She remembers her glasses lifting, turning incredibly slowly, and then ripping from her face. The house slid sideways off its foundation and fell on top of them.
It was a blessing, really. All that rubble kept them on the ground, not up in the tornado. It only took a few minutes, and then Vicky was laying on her back, looking up at the sky, which was pelting rain down on her unprotected face. Lightning flashed continually, striking all around them. Eventually Jeff was able to dig himself out, but Vicky’s legs and feet were pinned by heavy debris. When he tried to tilt the debris off her legs, the pain would become unbearable, and she’d beg him to stop. As she lay there, her legs pinned, she had to hold her arms tight to her sides — to each side, at about head height, huge, jagged pieces of wood rested inches from her, as if on a path to impaling her when something stopped them.
Next to them sat the guest-room bed. It was nowhere near its original location, but it was still made perfectly. Jeff stripped the comfortor off to sheild Vicky’s face from the rain and starting climbing out of the rubble to look for help. Vicky’s oxygen tank had disappeared, and she lay gasping, trying to stay calm, trying to breathe, watching the lightning, listening to distant screams, shivering in the cold rain. She lay there for maybe 45 minutes, but it seemed an eternity.
In the street, Jeff found some people who happened to have a pickup truck. They lifted the debris from Vicky’s legs and carried her out. The front door lay in the yard, and they used that as a stretcher to carry Vicky to the back of the pickup. Also lying in the front yard was Vicky’s oxygen tank, just lying there, ready to go. As they drove, a woman sat in the back with Vicky, stroking her hair and telling her she’d be okay. Vicky would love to say thank you to that woman. After they reached the medical station, they cut Vicky’s shirt off of her. She asked them not to — it was the only one she had — but she was covered in blood, and they needed to make sure it was just the cuts and scrapes everyone had. She was okay, but soon she found herself homeless, car-less, purse-less. She owned exactly three things in the world: a bra, a pair of underwear, and a pair of pants. No glasses. No driver’s license. No cash. No credit cards. No shirt. Not even a pair of shoes.
Their pets were gone. She and Jeff didn’t much care about the stuff. But they were heart-sick over their pets.
They came home to K.C., and a day or so later, a woman called Vicky’s new cell. She found a little dog, and that cell number was on the tag. Yes, she’d be glad to keep the dog for a while until Vicky could come for her.
A few days after that, they got another call — Tango had been found and dropped off at an animal shelter.
My husband, Jeff, their brother and father went back to Joplin a few days later to search. They found Jeff’s wallet, Vicky’s jewelry, odds and ends. The file cabinet with all their paperwork was gone. The dishwasher was there, and they had just run it the day the tornado hit, so they retrieved their silverware. They also saw Samba hiding in the rubble of the house, but he ran from them. Two weeks later, the Humane Society finally put a cat trap in the rubble and caught him. He was skin and bones, and like the other animals is terrified of thunder, but he was alive.
So how does a house completely disinegrate around two people, two cats, and a dog, suck all three animals out of the house, and they all survive with cuts and bruises? How did those jagged pieces of wood stop inches from Vicky’s head? It seems like a miracle.
This weekend, when I saw the pile of rubble that used to be the high school — that’s the crosswalk that led to the front door to the right — where the class of 2011 was graduating as the tornado bore down on them, I noticed a lot of plaques stuck in the fence, clustered around the sign–pictures of butterflies. Vicky casually asked me, “Have you heard about the butterfly people?” Apparently several children had told their parents they saw beautiful butterfly people during the tornado, holding them down, protecting them. Maybe one of them held the jagged pieces of wood away from Vicky. Maybe they protected Tango as the bathtub flew out into the tornado. I don’t know why they didn’t save the 161 people who died that day, but I guess you take your miracles as they are given and say thanks.
Seeing Jeff and Vicky still here, moved into their new house on that same patch of land, no trees anywhere nearby, no neighbors, with their two skittish cats and their crazy dog, looking out the front door at a flat, barren landscape, I kind of believe in miracles again. So thanks, butterfly people, or Fate, or Luck, or God, for this Joplin miracle. We’ll take it and say thanks.