Community reflections of the Joplin tornado

Survivors walk west down 26th street in Joplin, Mo, near St. John's Hospital after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo, on Sunday, May 22, 2011.

Quinten Sargent

I remember the day very vividly. May 22, 2011. I was enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon at the park celebrating my cousin’s birthday with my sisters. Crazy enough, my younger brother was participating in a baseball tournament that morning in Nevada, MO, when he was hit in the abdomen with a baseball, which cracked his spleen.  

My mother and brother were rushed from Nevada to Joplin’s Freeman Hospital. My mother called so my sisters and I could meet them before their med-flight departure to Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, MO.  

We arrived at the hospital 10 minutes before we were told to take shelter because a storm was coming. The events that followed were gut-wrenching but extremely fortunate for my family.  

We were locked in the ICU which is fairly closed-off from the outside, not containing many lookouts. Curtains were closed and nurse visits became slim. We then noticed a complete cellular network disconnect and an influx of noises and movement outside my brother’s hospital room.   

When we got the okay to leave, we did so, in order to pack overnight bags as we would have to stay with my grandma so my mother could accompany my brother in his travels. Exiting the hospital room was a sight I can never forget, reminiscent of an old history film documenting war casualties. Blood splattered the floors, injured people on stretchers crying for help, and nurses practicing in any nook or cranny they found fit.   

Still having yet seen the outside, we began our journey to our home, one block east of 20th and Connecticut. My sister drove us, and I remember traffic being comparable to Pacific Coast Highway during rush hour. About a mile from our home, it became difficult to dodge broken powerlines, it was then that we decided to park and walk the remaining distance to our home.  

On our walk, about half-a-mile from our house, we were made aware that our house was most-likely destroyed. When we did finally make it to our house it was indeed flattened, all except the upstairs bathroom, which was completely intact. We coddled each other and cried as we lived in this moment.   

I remember my mother repeatedly saying, “I’m glad I called you all when I did. Those are just things; they can be replaced. The most important thing is we all still have each other.”  

Eventually our possessions were replaced, my brother was cured, and our new indefinite home was the Hilton Hotel.   

Through this traumatic time, we remained positive, mostly due to my mother’s surprisingly inspiring outlook on the tragedy. The outpour of support that we received from the community, and as a community, was unlike anything I’d ever seen.   

It was after this tragedy that we began to see the outpour of support from all around the world. I went back to middle school for high school, but The United Arab Emirates pledged to donate $500,000 to equip the high school with laptops for the upcoming school year.  

We were then surprised at homecoming with a guest performance from American Idol winner, David Cook, and got to attend a prom paid for by Katy Perry, and the Ambush Marketing team.  

In these moments our community came together, grieved together, and celebrated our rebuilding efforts. These events have not only had a lasting impact on our community, my family, and myself, but prepared us for the tragic times of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m proud to be from Joplin, MO, a place where we can put our differences aside to help our neighbor and ensure the health and wellbeing of our community. 

 

Marci Morris Stoebel and Sophie Stoebel 

Morning Mass, errands, family over for supper, and homework… a typical, happy Sunday in our world.  Until suddenly the sky went from bright blue to green in the East, and black, as if someone turned off the lights to the West.  

It was an evening we will never forget… mere moments that felt like forever.  Thankfully we were together.  Thankfully we were able to walk away from the destruction that once was our home.  Thankfully we were all able to find our way to safety with family, and shelter with them for a year while we rebuilt.  Thankfully we were able to work together as a family and pull ourselves together.  Thankfully we were able to move ahead, carry on, rebuild and embrace the silver linings.  

May 22, 2011 was a tragic day of loss, in so many ways.  We don’t know a local that wasn’t touched by the events of that infamous day and the reach goes far beyond our sweet communities.  

Silver linings remind us that there’s beauty in every situation.  A decade ago, we watched as neighbors rallied to help neighbors and strangers become friends.  We watched as people traveled from far and wide to offer support and help in every sense of the word.  Debris was cleared, treasures recovered, lives saved, and lives rebuilt.  

People showed up.  There was no hesitation, no blazing sun, no lack of shelter, no heat, no rain, no obstacle that deterred them, they simply showed up and pitched in where needed.  We were able to work alongside people we would likely never have crossed paths with and create friendships and bonds we still hold dear to this day.    

We were touched by old friends and family from across the county who came home to help.  We in turn were able to lend a hand to others in need.  We found strength in ourselves, strength in each other, and strength we didn’t know we had and combined them to embrace our fresh start and rise.  

As our family and friends traveled home to help, their eyes couldn’t believe the cities they once knew. It was difficult to navigate the streets, the missing landmarks and barren neighborhoods made Duquesne and Joplin almost unrecognizable.  The comeback truly was greater than the setback.  Joplin and Duquesne have flourished in their reconstruction.  Homes, businesses, new construction and reconstruction have been consistently rebuilding the landscape for the past ten years.  Parks, churches, community buildings and multifamily construction rose too, and numerous people found safe affordable housing in the process.  

The past decade flew by.  May 22, 2011 will always be remembered as a day of great loss, broken hearts and broken homes, it was also a day of great love, great triumph, great blessings and silver linings galore.  We will continue to marvel at the silver linings and remember those whose lives were lost and all those countless volunteers who came to help rebuild Duquesne and Joplin… strong.

 

Hollis Cady 

On May 22, 2011, I experienced what I believe to be one of the worst days of my life. I lived in the middle of Joplin on 20th and Kentucky, right next to the high school. It started as a normal Sunday afternoon and being a sophomore in high school, I had nothing to do.   

After a couple hours of playing video games, I got a call from my friend Zach and he asked me to hang out with him. So, I walked down to his house which was nearby.   

After hanging out for a few hours, we heard what sounded like a train.   

We were confused when Zach’s door swung open with his dad screaming at us to get into the basement because there was a tornado coming. We rushed to get his brother from the next room on the way to the basement. All I could think about was my family.   

I tried calling my parents, but the phones weren’t working. I was worried the longer we waited because I didn’t know when it was going to be over or if my family was safe or not.   

 When the sound of the “train” stopped, we started to go back upstairs to check if it was okay to go outside. When the coast was clear, I ran towards my house. At first, nothing looked like it had changed much.   

Zach lived on 16th street. After the first few blocks, the only difference I noticed was random stuff on the ground and in people’s yards. When I hit 18th street, I started to see more destruction.   

I remember how hard it was to pass Emerson elementary, seeing the windows blown because I went there as a child. Making it to 20th street, I could see destroyed cars along the road, tree branches and some trees scattered around, power lines down, and people running around. I made it up the block to see my house and the door was pinned open from the house being shifted.   

My truck was in front and it was totaled, glass broken out, dented everywhere, and a 2X4 sticking out of the front passenger tire. Getting a better look at my house, the door was open, and the roof was caved in over our porch. I ran inside to see if I could find anyone, terrified to find my family’s bodies. I called out.   

My dad answered and I went to make sure that he was okay, and I asked where my sister and mom were. He said they left before the tornado happened and didn’t know where they were because the phones were out. My dogs were gone, and we never saw them again.   

We went around the house looking to see what was destroyed. Looking at the house from the front, it shifted to the left leaning like a rhombus with the door being the only thing holding it up. Everything in the house was soaked and tossed everywhere.   

My room was in the back. Making my way through the house, not recognizing it from the destruction and mess, I couldn’t make out which room I was in. When I made it to my room, I couldn’t recognize it.   

The backyard consisted of a garage, a torn-up fence, and a big fallen tree, which landed where my room was. The tree crushed almost everything I had. The only thing left in my room that didn’t get destroyed was my PS2, which I still have.   

Eventually, the phones started working and my mom was able to call us. She told us that my sister was okay at her boyfriend’s house and that she was fine as well at my grandparent’s house. We all met up at our house to investigate more and grab what we needed.   

We didn’t end up taking much, due to how wet and covered in insulation and other destruction to most of our things.   

My sister and I stayed with my grandparents for the summer while the FEMA trailers were being built. While we lived in the FEMA trailers, our house was being rebuilt. The FEMA trailers felt crowded and most of the time it was too loud, and we didn’t have much privacy. I was grateful that we had somewhere to stay though.   

 We had to take what was left of my house apart and rebuild from the ground up. My mom and some other family members designed our new home and my dad built it with the help of volunteers. Nearly everything inside, including furniture, was donated to us.   

By the time we were able to move in, I was a senior in high school. Everything was upgraded and it was a nice place to live, and several times bigger than the FEMA trailer that we had grown used to. I only lived there for a year before joining the military, getting married, and finding my own place to live.   

When my parents decided to downsize and sell the house in 2019, I was surprised, but I didn’t really feel attached anymore. I had my wife and daughter and the home we were building together.   

Sometimes when I drive by my old house, I think about the home I grew up in. Even though the tornado blew it away, memories were left behind in its place. 

 

Brooklyn Cady 

Rain beat down relentlessly on the pavement and sirens screamed their warnings as my family rushed across the street to the safety of my aunt’s basement. This was a time before most Joplin homes had storm shelters, so my younger sisters and I were squeezed into a dingy broom closet rested snuggly within the bones of the home.   

My mom spent most of the time upstairs with my dad, aunt, and uncle watching the news flicker on and off the screen of the living room television. The satellite signal grew weaker as the sound of the wind crashing against the home grew stronger. I wiped the tears from my sister’s eyes as we waited. We didn’t really know what we were waiting for: to live, to die? I regretted the jokes I made about the end of the world only a few hours prior.   

After waiting for what felt like an eternity, it was over. The big, bad tornado huffed and puffed, but we were so fortunate that it didn’t blow our house down. I emerged from my aunt’s rabbit hole of a closet then delicately climbed the stairs, unsure if the steps would collapse from under me. As I made my way through the front door and onto the porch, I saw nothing but debris surrounding me.   

Family photos and personal belongings were scattered around my aunt’s yard, and we never found out who they belonged to. To the left, trees were uprooted and tossed around and the church, which we couldn’t view clearly before, was halfway gone. Stepping into the street, our eyes began to follow the path of the storm, and we saw the destruction remaining in its wake.   

As reality sunk in, I heard my dad say, “is that Amanda’s car in our driveway?” Our eyes danced from the destruction to the driveway across the street. Sure enough, a blue Mazda was sitting in our driveway, smashed by large branch from the tree my sisters and I would play under as children. My parents rushed across the street in search of my other aunt, wondering if she brought her kids to our house seeking safety. My dad checked the entire house for them, and when he reached a bathroom at the back of the house, he saw a mattress covering the bathtub, and lifted it up to find two terrified teenage girls.   

The girls began to cry and apologized for going into our home without permission. My dad, in true hero fashion, assured them they needed not to apologize, and he made sure they were okay before assisting them in finding a ride home. Their car was picked up a few days later, but we never saw them again.   

Seconds after the girls left, my aunt Amanda did show up. Only living a few blocks away, Amanda came to check on us after realizing the phones were down. Amanda was frantic because she couldn’t contact her father-in-law, who was watching her son, Hunter. Hunter has severe nonverbal autism, and he loves trains.   

When mothers worry about their children, anything is possible. Because tornados are said to sound like trains, Amanda worried Hunter might have left the house in search of them. As she got back into her car, I offered to go with her.   

As we drove across Joplin, I couldn’t believe the destruction. Seeing so many homes and stores destroyed, I assumed many lives were lost and I was immediately and incredibly humbled.   

Once Hunter was located, safe and sound, we returned home when I learned the high school was destroyed. I was frustrated because I couldn’t contact my friends and I wasn’t sure if they were safe. Within the week, I was able to get in contact with my friends and I learned we wouldn’t be returning to school to finish the semester.   

Eventually, I learned I would spend my sophomore year of high school at the old memorial middle school, then I would finish my last two years of high school in the 11/12 campus at the Northpark Mall.   

There were many overwhelming transitions and a lot of tension within the first few years following the tornado. As high schoolers were split into different campuses and textbooks were retired to make way for laptops, many students struggled with their education.   

Along the way, tornado drills went from rare to regular, and each school had a tornado shelter installed and open to the public in case of another severe storm.   

The town was rebuilt, the community grew stronger, and art and culture found its way into a place where stories of butterfly people, fearful experiences, horrific sights, and tragic loss still arise any time tornado sirens fill the air.   

While I was fortunate, my experience wasn’t nearly as bad as others. May 22, 2011 has remained in my mind as a time where I feared for my life, my family, my friends, and my town. 

 

Julia Doubledee 

On May 22, 2011, I was 15-years-old and attended Parkview High School in Springfield, MO. Although I was not there during the tornado, Joplin is my hometown and the majority of my immediate family live there.   

We had a longstanding tradition of traveling to Joplin every Sunday to eat dinner with family but had to miss out that day because my stepdad was sick. If we would have been there, we would have been at 28th and Pearl, in the path of the tornado destruction.   

The fear that I felt after hearing of the news after the tornado was unreal. I specifically remember running from my bedroom to the living room where my stepdad was watching tv on the couch. I frantically told him about the tornado. We were in a frenzy trying to get through to family and friends.   

Cell phone towers were likely down in many areas, so some friends and family were unreachable. After hours of calling family, we were able to track down almost everyone. Some family members were taken to the hospital and others were unharmed. That was hands down one of the most terrifying moments of my life.  

Living almost 90 miles away from my hometown, unable to help those I cared about most, while also having to continue going to school was very difficult. Everyone in my classes wanted to talk about the tornado and look at pictures.  

After some time, we decided to move back to the area and stay with my grandma in Carl Junction where I finished high school.  

Watching Joplin build back to what it is today was remarkable. You could truly feel the community work together to bring back the original glory of the town. As the town started rebuilding, it was not uncommon to drive around and see neighbors helping neighbors.   

The community was built back stronger than ever. I remember going to Third Thursday in the years following the tornado and witnessing a togetherness that I had never seen in the Joplin area. Although the aftermath was physically repaired, there was still a lot of emotional repairing that needed to be done.  

I have a fear of storms to this day. I, like many others, can’t get enough of Doug Heady’s weather updates when it may take a turn for the worst. I worked in the Subway at the 15th street Walmart on the night of April 27, 2014, when the EF-2 tornado hit Baxter Springs, KS. My grandma was on the phone with me saying that Doug Heady was telling everyone to take shelter.   

I started walking back to the break room where the shelter was, and I could see the tornado out the doors. My whole body went numb. I finally got into the break room to see so many traumatized faces. I had previously had conversations with employees who worked in that very Walmart the day it was destroyed in 2011, so this hit close to home for them. When we were told it was safe, you could almost hear an audible sigh come from every person in that break room.   

To think that it has been ten years since May 22, 2011, is astonishing. I am more than proud to call Joplin home after seeing the comradery that took place after this day of destruction. What started out as a normal Sunday turned into citizens coming together to build back a better future for the city of Joplin. 

 

Susannah Schrader-Brogan 

The morning of May 22, 2011 was sunny. I remember waking up on the hard floor of St. Peter’s Middle School, exhausted from a “lock-in” with my fellow eighth graders. We were celebrating the end of both the school year and our middle school careers. High school was on the horizon, and it felt like there was nothing to worry about.   

Later that day, my family took a trip to the grocery store without me. As I sat in the house alone, the sky began to darken, shifting from blue to a greenish-gray color. Thunder rumbled in the distance as we unloaded the groceries, but it wasn’t like regular thunder. It didn’t boom for a few moments and then stop before starting up again. Instead, it was unceasing, like a growl.    

            That growl was soon drowned out by the wailing of sirens. We took shelter in our crawl space, but we weren’t there long. When we came back up, not one shingle on our roof was damaged, and no branches were down in the yard. We settled back into the house, content that the scare that we’d just endured was a false alarm that we’d grown so used to during the spring in Joplin.  

            It was only when my dad called from the East Coast, frantically asking if we were safe, that we realized that wasn’t the case.   

            We spent the rest of the night like so many families across the city, trying to figure out if our loved ones were okay. We were lucky and eventually tracked everyone down unharmed. Still, it was a gut punch seeing so much of our town destroyed: houses, schools, even the hospital reduced to rubble.  

            Much of what we lost that day was eventually rebuilt, and though Joplin has never looked the same, it now looks complete. What couldn’t be replaced, of course, were the 161 people who lost their lives in the storm. For me, the staggering death toll was a tragic reminder of something I had been ignoring for years: sometimes it’s not a false alarm. Sometimes it’s the real deal.  

            I’ve been a TV news producer for almost three years now, and when it comes to severe weather, we pull out all the stops. Our meteorologists work tirelessly from the studio, and even risk their lives out in the field to bring our viewers the most up-to-date information about where a storm is headed. Sometimes we even cut into TV shows and inevitably get a slew of angry emails. Contrary to what some believe, we don’t make extra money or gain anything by interrupting programming. We do it because there’s a clear and present danger that our viewers need to know about, right then and there.   

            I live in Kansas City now, and work with some of the best meteorologists in the business. One of those incredible scientists, Nick Bender, has a saying when it comes to severe weather preparedness: “Take the path of least regret.” It’s a great reminder, especially when it can be tempting to ignore the warnings that seem so common. Sure, you might go into your basement for nothing – but what if you didn’t, and something tragic happened? Weigh the regret you’d feel then with the inconvenience of taking cover, and I’m confident you’ll make the right choice.   

            Looking back on the Joplin tornado reminds us of the wrath of Mother Nature, but we don’t have to be completely at her mercy. 

 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.