Witnessing deadly tornado leaves lasting effect

A pickup truck with what looked like two rescue workers and two injured people weaved in and out of traffic to get to Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Missouri after the town was hit by a tornado on May 22, 2011.Joplin, Missouri
A pickup truck with what looked like two rescue workers and two injured people weaved in and out of traffic to get to Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Missouri after the town was hit by a tornado on May 22, 2011.Joplin, Missouri File photo

In the year since I found myself caught on the edge of the deadly tornado in Joplin, I’ve been back at least five times.

And every time I go, I’m compelled to return to our “hidey hole” – a nondescript carport in a nondescript medical office complex.

I’m not sure why I have to go, but I do. Part of me wants to see how repairs are progressing. Part of me wants to sit in the spot and marvel at how close we were to a different outcome.

Last May 22, my daughter Alexis and I were in Joplin for my cousin Taylor Anne’s wedding.

My parents grew up in the area and live there now, as does most of their family. Every childhood Thanksgiving and many Christmases were spent in the town of about 50,000 in southwest Missouri, which I loved for its Red Lobster and big mall.

My daughter was the flower girl in the Sunday wedding, and my best friend, Wichita Eagle photojournalist Jaime Green, was the photographer.

The wedding was moved up several hours when we realized bad weather was approaching. The 6 p.m. start time became 2 p.m., and despite all the hurriedness, the guests all arrived and the wedding was beautiful and fun.

But as 5 p.m. drew near, Alexis, then 6, was developing a serious case of storm anxiety after hearing my dad talk about a tornado watch. The bride and groom had just left, so Jaime and I decided to leave, too, and go back to my parents’ house in Carthage. Alexis and I loaded into my car, Jaime got into hers, and off we went.

I’ve told the story of what happened during the next 20 minutes over and over again in the past year. The clunk of debris hitting my car roof that I mistook for hail. Pulling over into the medical complex to let the hailstorm pass. Hearing the sirens. Realizing something was horribly wrong but that we were out of time. Getting out of the car and crouching against the building, Alexis protected between us. Watching telephone polls topple, dumpsters skitter and roofs lift up and fly away.

We escaped without a scratch, despite being just yards from St. John’s Hospital, which took a direct hit from the tornado.

Our hidey hole was near the beginning of the tornado’s path. As we sat there, wet, shivering and grateful to have survived, the tornado was intensifying, shredding much of the city and taking 161 lives.

In the year since, Jaime and I have both realized how lucky we were that day. We were so close. In retrospect, we made several bad decisions. But they were bad decisions that kept us alive, so it doesn’t really matter.

All three of us have more anxiety about severe weather now, but we’re not paralyzed by fear. We pay close attention to what’s happening and we stay put.

We also have made a whole stable of new tornado friends. Jaime and I shared our story with meteorologist Mike Smith of AccuWeather, who just published a book detailing what went wrong with the storm warning that day. It’s called “When the Sirens Were Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community.”

We’ve heard from almost all the people who were captured in the photograph Jaime shot from her car window as we left town that night. It shows two people in the back of a pickup truck headed for the town’s other, undamaged, hospital, administering aid to two victims whose feet are visible jutting out from the bed. I wrote a story about the heroes, who included young army cadet Lucian Myers, and Jaime and I are now avid Facebook friends with Lucian’s mother.

I went back to Joplin this past weekend to attend my cousin’s graduation.

The weather was perfect. The town looks better.

I joined my aunt and cousin in the downtown Joplin Memorial Run on Saturday.

At the start of the race, organizers released 161 balloons, each one signifying a life that was lost that day.

For the first time, I didn’t go back to the hidey hole. The last time I was there, it was partially repaired. The telephone poles were untoppled, and the dumpster was back in its place. The roof was still gone, and several of the windows were still shattered, but it was back to business as almost normal.

On one of my hidey hole visits last year, I took three landscaping rocks from the exact spot that we huddled as the storm passed, one for Alexis, one for Jaime and one for myself.

Today, when I think back on that day, I look at our rocks and realize how lucky I am that the three of us were able to come back home, physically unharmed, and return to business as almost normal.

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