May 22, 2011 — remembering the Joplin tornado 10 years later

painting by Travis Pratt

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the Joplin tornado, the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 1947, which killed 161 people and destroyed 25% of my wife’s hometown. This week I’ve been thinking about the event itself, and also how much has changed since then.

We had just moved back from Leipzig, and were settling back into a Kansas City that seemed abuzz with new civic and cultural life. The new performing arts center was about to open, our friends were taking part in a new national arts project called “America: Now and Here” that kicked off in Kansas City (and quickly ran out of money), and we were busily, happily, reconnecting with people and the city.

The Saturday before the tornado, May 21, 2011, had been predicted as the day of rapture and judgment by a Christian radio host and doomsayer, which made a lot of headlines. 2012 was just months away, and the apocalypse seemed just around the corner, if you took these things at all seriously, which no one I knew did (except for one person, but that’s another story).

The world didn’t end that day, but at least one person was killed in a storm that night in Lone Jack, which my friends and I drunkenly noted was enough to fulfill the prophecy on a small, hyperlocal level. That night I walked home from Kyle’s house in KCK, hiccuping and laughing as the tornado sirens kicked on. It was so familiar it felt almost quaint. It’s good to be home, I thought.

The next day everything changed. We got a call at a graduation party when Jenn got a text from one of Jenn’s sisters. “Mom and Dad are OK. Cell service is down. Landline might work.”

She quickly called back her sister, who told her there had been a tornado and that we should turn on the TV.

I took the remote from my cousin, deep in the NHL playoffs, and switched to network news, where early reports suggested that 75% of the town had been destroyed by a massive tornado. It might have even said 90%. I can’t remember, but the early numbers and footage presented a portrait of the devastation on the ground as near complete.

Jenn got a ride to Joplin the next day. I worked a couple more days — my second week back on the job — and drove down toward the end of the week. During the days between reconnecting we each had to take shelter (her in Joplin, me at work in downtown Kansas City) due to other tornado warnings. For several years after that I had recurring dreams of taking shelter from tornadoes at various locations. My days of smiling at the sound of storm sirens were obviously over.

The night I arrived, her dad gave me a tour of the tornado zone, which ran in a mile-wide band through the middle of the city. I’ve never seen anything close to that level of destruction. He pointed out where various friends’ houses had been, the spray-painted Xs with numbers showing how many times a house had been searched, and whether any bodies had been recovered. It was just before curfew, and a line of police cars blocked off access to the hardest-hit streets, including Jenn’s grandma’s house, which had been completely leveled. Though thankfully her grandma had been visiting relatives in Texas.

I remember a lot of things about that week. Drinking beer at night with other friends who had come back to town to help out, laughing at the kind but devout volunteers from regional church groups, offering bottled water and platitudes like “The Lord has a plan.” (“Yes, but what if his plan is to pummel the shit out of Joplin?” Jeremiah countered). Watching YouTube videos from storm chasers and people trapped in the storage room at a gas station. Jenn’s uncle setting aside his medical practice for a few weeks to investigate stories of people seeing angels (which turned out to be mostly Facebook rumors).

Mostly, though, the visuals: Flattened buildings and shredded trees everywhere. A giant shredded American flag on the highway entering town. Semi-trailers turned on their sides. The cross standing in front of the now destroyed St. Mary’s church. Looking for South Main Street and not even realizing I was already on it since all the familiar landmarks were gone. The driveways and destroyed houses painted with messages like “Down but not out,” “You loot, we shoot,” “Put down your camera, lend a hand,” and “F5? FU!”

Joplin High School had been leveled, and the sign beside the street quickly became an inspirational shrine of sorts. Next to the remaining letters in the school sign (“OP”) someone painted an H and an E. The “HOPE high school” sign was presided over by sculptures of eagles carved out from broken trees — a tribute to the school’s community and mascot. If the tornado hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, with the school’s graduation ceremony several miles away, who knows how much worse it could have been.

Later that year, or maybe in early 2012, the vividness and detail of the Joplin tornado’s aftermath were brought back to me in a series of paintings by Travis Pratt, a Kansas City artist originally from Joplin who spent the previous year painting scenes of the tornado’s destruction, most of them painted directly onto plywood and debris salvaged in the clean-up effort. His paintings captured the unusual and even beautiful arrangement of everyday materials, of houses and lives turned inside-out and left there for everyone to see. In 2017, they were finally featured in a solo exhibit at Spiva Arts Center, back in his hometown.

For months after the event itself, the tornado dominated conversations with friends and family from Joplin. Our friend Tom’s family was selected to appear on a special tornado edition of “Extreme Home Makeover,” which constructed a house for his family complete with a half-pipe, snack shack, and fake palm trees in the backyard. I remember having a party there the week the show aired, drinking cases of beer on the porch and looking out over a neighborhood that was still almost completely flattened.

Friends who lived through it had incredible and harrowing stories — taking shelter in a movie theater, seeing the tornado approaching and throwing their cars into reverse, as well as strange mixes of fact and rumors like the Picadilly Circus elephants that helped pull away debris, a Sebaldian detail that even now seems more like fiction than history.

The magnitude of that event — even experienced secondhand — had a strong effect on us. It was a strange and intense thing to have happen our first week back home in the States, but I’m glad we were around to help clean up and document things and not watching helplessly from too far away. Within a few months, Jenn and I were expecting our first kid, and while it’s far too tidy to cite the life-and-death nature of May 2011 as an inspiration to start a family, I do remember feeling for the first time a mysterious push toward begetting new life.

Almost 9 years later, at the onset of COVID-19, I considered the many similarities between the Joplin tornado and the global pandemic: The relatively sudden onset of a life-altering event. The distinctive divide into before/after time periods. The knowledge that things will “come back,” but certainly not in the same way as before. And the need, in the midst of chaos and adversity, to figure out the best ways to quickly adjust and keep going.

Hanging out in our backyards and porches and drinking beer with friends in 2020 also felt a lot like those early makeshift gatherings in Joplin in 2011. There was something informal and essential about social events in both of those eras. And on a Saturday night this fall, back at Kyle’s (this time in KCMO), a few of us were outside listening to music when the subject of the tornado came up. Joplin had been in the national news again as a crisis point, this time due to COVID. For some reason I started telling the story of my friend who saw the tornado and threw his car into reverse, a story that by now I surely know only as an oversimplified, dramatic version of whatever really happened.

Our friend Billy was over that night, and as a Joplin native he had stories, too, including one from his aunt. She had heard the sirens and wanted to try and make it home before the storm hit. But by the time she had buckled into her vehicle and begun the drive home, a tree branch fell across the front of her car, smashing the hood. She looked over and saw the car next to her fly up into the sky. She felt the tail of her own car lift into the air, but it stayed on the ground, pinned in place by the same tree that had almost killed her.

Hearing Billy tell that story (no doubt in a more thorough and accurate version) brought back the intensity of May 22, 2011, and the thought: we lived through that. Not directly, in our cases. But enough to be shaped by it, and to never forget those events as long as we live.

So on the 1o-year anniversary today I’m thinking of all the people who were directly affected, especially those who lost family members, friends, pets, homes, businesses. I’m sure for the parents who lost children — some torn directly from their arms — 10 years is nowhere near long enough to dampen the pain of that loss. But if you visit Joplin today, you’d hardly look around and suspect a tornado hit a decade ago, or that a pandemic is still underway. Both 2011 and 2020 are reminders that, even in historically terrible times, life can, and does, and will go on.

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