FIVE DAYS IN JOPLIN: Notes on a tragedy

I’ve lived in tornado alley almost all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like what I just saw in Joplin.

Somewhere around 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 22, shortly after graduation for Joplin High School let out, a column of hot air welled up in the atmosphere and punched through a ceiling of cold air coming in from the north, spawning one of the most massive tornadoes ever recorded. It landed on the western edge of the city, slender at first, before widening its path dramatically to nearly a mile wide and dragging itself — and its 200+ m.p.h. winds — across the length of Joplin, population 49,024. In the neighborhoods the tornado first demolished, it generated so much torque that it picked up sheets of loosened metal and wrapped them around trees, like ribbons. Its winds ripped the bark off trees, imploded St. John’s Hospital and blew X-rays from the building more than 70 miles away. Moving east, the wind hurled cars into piles at a ravaged Walmart while shredding the store. Next door, those same winds were busy ripping the roof off a Home Depot, pushing over its massive concrete front wall, crushing several inside who were trying to run inside to take shelter.

Then, as soon as the twister had finished spanning the length of the city — roughly six miles — it dissipated. Joplin, or what was left of it, remained.

A document I later obtained showed the path of the damage. See the grey lines on the top half of the page:

I didn’t hear about the storm until a couple hours later, at which point I decided that I would go to Joplin as soon as day broke the next morning. That night, I cold-emailed a few editors asking them if they wanted help, attached a couple clips and said I’d report for the first publication that called back while I was driving in the morning; otherwise, I’d just be seeing how I could help. I didn’t have to wait long. Roger Smith, national editor at the Los Angeles Times, called me shortly before 1 a.m. as I was packing my go-bag; at the end of the call, five minutes and 41 seconds later — with little more than a verbal handshake on a contract, and with little direction or advice other than to send updates from Joplin as soon as I got there — I was a reporter for the Times.

The next morning, I got up at 6 a.m., showered, got dressed, strapped on a pair of combat boots, and hit the road.

The boots were maybe the most important thing I took. 

  

The first two hours in Joplin, the morning after the tornado, were two of the most intense I’d experienced. Another major storm was hitting just as I arrived. Some of the streets were flooded. Power lines were down everywhere, so you weren’t sure if you were at risk to get electrocuted. Wrecked cars reeked of leaking gasoline, their radios still on, their turning signals still flickering. Cell coverage was nonexistent. The storm occasionally spat hail. I had no map, but even if I did, street signs no longer existed anyway. People were wandering the streets, which were littered in glass and nails, many of them wearing awful (or no) footwear. You see, the last thing anyone thinks about when a tornado hits is to put on some shoes before they curl into a ball in the bathtub; but when a tornado flattens the closet where their shoes once were, sending two-by-fours with exposed four-inch nails flying in waves into lawns and streets and what-used-to-be-living-rooms, people pay for this. The Army-issue jungle boots I was wearing had steel plates in the bottom designed to prevent puncture wounds. Grateful. I watched one girl in galoshes step on a nail in the rain.

Five minutes after I parked, I was standing in the Moes’ living room, rather, what was left of it. They were collecting their valuables. Insulation was sprayed everywhere, and the roof had been torn half off, with rain pouring down into what used to be the dining room. A skillet of last night’s pasta still sat on the stove.

 

A few hours earlier, five people had hid in the Moes’ six-by-four-foot food pantry as they heard a rushing low growl over the sirens. Their ears began popping. ”We heard some horrible creaking noise,” Ryan Moe, 28, told me; the noise turned out to be the roof getting torn off over their heads. “It felt like forever, but I would be surprised if it lasted more than 30 seconds,” Moe said of the twister.

I don’t know how many stories like this I heard that day: People hiding in closets, beneath stairwells, in the bathroom. They’d point to two small walls still standing in a pile of rubble and say, “See that? I was there.”

@mattdpearce Some of these survivor stories are incredible. Hiding in bathtubs, crawling out of the rubble. Now picking through their lives in the rain. 23 May

Greg Palmersheim, 32, was taking a shower when lights went off. He hid in his basement, buck naked, clutching a toiletries bag, as the twister decapitated the top floor of his house. He put on a pair of dirty shorts and a hoodie he found in his basement, and a neighbor lent him a pair of shoes.

Another shoe story: Desiree Limkeman, whose house was now little more than an elevated slab of cement and a pile of tinder, had prayed as the winds came and erased her neighborhood. As her home was obliterated, her mind wandered back to 1984, when her mother, sister, sister’s husband, and nephew, were killed by a drunk driver. ”I was thinking my dad doesn’t need to lose another child,” she said.

She survived. A set of shelves collapsed on her. "When I crawled out, all I had was my clothes and no shoes," she said. A man came and carried her to the basement of a half-collapsed brick church across the street. When I met her some 16 hours after the storm came, her family was picking through the junk, looking for her billfold and anything else important. "Hey, hey, hey!" She said, shouting at a male relative walking away with a dirty piece of cloth. "That’s my baby blanket." Limkeman looked to her left, far off in the backyard, maybe in someone else’s backyard, spotting something there. “Honey, is that our refrigerator?” 

I steered my car past the rubble and over downed power lines to take a look at the city’s obliterated business district along Range Line.

@mattdpearce Everyone here speaks of places in the past tense. Well, this was Walmart: http://yfrog.com/h7j4nnlj 23 May

From the first story:

Joplin’s Wal-Mart, on a slight incline overlooking the city’s business district, was half-collapsed, with ceiling supports sticking out like an exposed ribcage. In the parking lot, dozens of destroyed cars were stacked in pyramids.

"I hope to God nobody was in these cars," said Cavin Cowan, 45. He pointed to a ravaged gold Buick. "Somebody was probably still in that one," he said. "The lights are on, the radio’s still going."

The windows were blown out, and a baby seat, splattered in mud, was in the back seat.

Next door, the scene at Home Depot was grim, as I’d learn a little more fully a couple days later. By this time, Nick Riccardi, the Times’ Denver bureau chief, had arrived, giving the Los Angeles Times a second pair of eyes on the ground.

 

By Wednesday, even as the authorities had started to nail down control of the city, Home Depot was still looking like a sarcophagus of brick and steel. I had to sweet-talk my way past a few patrol police guarding the access road alongside the store, and soon found the Missouri Task Force 1, a specialized rescue team, sprawled along the side of the road. Backhoes picked at the front of the store and other teams of rescuers drifted through the rubble in a cloud of dust, some with human-sniffing dogs. Missouri Task Force 1 would have no rescues at Home Depot that day.

As I walked up, a task-force member walked up and said, “We’ve been told that this is a no-media event.”

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means that you should stop looking like a reporter and come over here," she said, guiding me away from the road. The cops had been coming by and picking off TV reporters left and right, apparently afraid someone would film a body. Grateful for the tiniest of openings, I set about finding out what they knew, which was this:

When the demonic twister struck Joplin, killing at least 122 people, it sheared the roof off the Home Depot and toppled its front wall — a massive concrete slab more than 8 inches thick.

Several people were crushed beneath the slab, and the store became the focus of a complicated recovery effort.

At least one crew — the Missouri Task Force 1 urban rescue team, based in Boone County, Mo. — drilled 2-inch holes through concrete to drop small cameras into the space beneath to find victims.

The highly trained, all-volunteer task force cut through layers of concrete and steel using diamond-bladed saws and high-powered torches normally used to cut through hulls of submarines.

The team leader, Doug Westhoff, called the work “heart-wrenching.” The crew found eight people dead, the most recent Tuesday morning.

"There was a guy who recognized his son-in-law’s truck in the parking lot," Westhoff said, pointing to a crushed pickup nearby. "He just knew his grandkids and his son-in-law were in the store. And he was right."

This information mostly had to be obtained through interview back-doors and repeated questioning, because the rescuers were understandably a little shy to talk about victims. “We have assisted with body recoveries,” one rescuer said, “and that’s all I’m gonna say about that.” The rest of the interview was conducted in a hypothetical: So, say you discovered a crush victim — what would happen next? And that’s how I learned about a horrible thing called crush syndrome.

Here’s the thing: There is almost no dignified way to die. Our bodies break. Buildings are made of brick, bodies are made of bone, and a 200-m.p.h. wind does insulting things to both. We do a lot of things to conceal this fact from each other, to hide death. Maybe we’re perhaps a little ashamed of the fact that we are mortal, that we all have to die someday, that we all eventually break.

But talking about these things matters, because this is what really happened. We can lie to ourselves as much as we want, but we can’t lie to ourselves about death. If disaster coverage only consisted of some B-roll footage of knocked-over buildings and an abstract number of casualties given out by the government, it’d be the equivalent of airbrushing models on the cover of Vogue. So I asked the questions.

By midweek, things had calmed down a little, though Joplin had a nasty scare with another tornado passing just north of town on Tuesday night. Families continued to sort through the rubble the next day. I watched a couple people crawl up to the third floor of this apartment building, whose stairs were covered in rubble, and bring down baskets of clothes. I think that’s a cell tower.

In a neighborhood along Connecticut, friends and coworkers of Keenan Cortez, 46, took sledgehammers to a remaining wall of his mother’s house, which had partially collapsed into a pile of brick, particle board and insulation. They were trying to get to her hope chest, which was filled with irreplaceable family antiques. Most of the people who came to help were Cortez’s coworkers, some of which had came from Arkansas to help. ”The gratitude that me and my family have,” Cortez said of the help, “I’m not articulate enough to express.”

He told me about his reaction to the second tornado warning that had come last night: “I spent an hour in my closet, totally numb. My wife was petrified. My son didn’t know what to think.” He wasn’t the only one in Joplin to feel this.

When I came back to the house later, Cortez’s mother, Sandra Griffin, 62, had arrived after the chest had been extracted from the rubble. She’d narrowly avoided danger on Sunday by going to pick up a pair of sunglasses at her sister’s house elsewhere in town when the tornado hit, destroying her own home while her sister’s was spared. “A pair of sunglasses saved my life,” she told me.

She became emotional as she stared at the remnants of her house. “The fact that they got my mom’s picture out…” she said, trailing off into silence as she looked at the destruction and then turned away. Her son, Cortez, immediately came over and slipped an arm around her shoulder.

"It’s okay, Mama, it’s okay," he said, leaning his head close into hers. "We got more work to do."

A few blocks away, one neighborhood on the fringes of the twister’s path offered a portrait in extremes.

On the north side of 24th and Kansas: an image of postapocalyptic Joplin, a junkyard of homes abandoned to the elements. Across the front of a roofless, doorless yellowbrick cube that used to be someone’s house, someone had spraypainted the words GOD IS GOOD.

On the south side of the street: a glimpse at a radically different Joplin.

A fine brick home stood completely upright and mostly roofed as a crew of five Carthage, Mo., men attacked small debris in the lawn. Johnny Clark, 54, wearing a camouflage jacket and hat, chomped a cigarette as he fired up a leafblower and enthusiastically shot chunks of glass, tiling and particle board in piles across his elderly uncle’s yard.

A shirtless Randy Wilson, 48 — whose laborer’s tan and scrappy build made him look like a limber piece of beef jerky — raked debris into a wheelbarrow. When a swatch of rain passed through, the men retreated to the covered porch, eating cheeseburgers shared by a passing volunteer and shooting ruthless and unprintable insults at each other. They invited me to come eat with them, which I did, and one of them offered me a place to stay.

The lawn, unlike nearly anything around it, was on its way to becoming neatly clean.

"Hey Los Angeles, put this in your paper," one of them said to me. "Tell Kobe Bryant some of the people in Joplin need that NBA money."

Even in crisis areas, humor never completely dies. I think this is part of people’s resilience.

@mattdpearce Go to a disaster and you will never cease to be amazed by meeting people who have lost everything but their lives and still seem unstressed. 25 May

For the first three days of the disaster, Nick Riccardi and I fanned out over city looking for stories, bits of color; we’d then file dictate or file paragraphs back to a third reporter back in Los Angeles — the person changed, depending on the day — who would compile our information, mash it up with the wire reports, look at the national angle, and then write the story. (Observation: Major news orgs think with the same brain. Nick’s and my first story was almost identical to the one the New York Times filed, right down to the ledes.)

Even though cell coverage was miserable — and my Gmail got slammed by a virus on my first day in town, sending out hundreds of spam emails as I was trying to report — I would write copy on my phone and email it to the national desk back at the Times when I got a few seconds of internet connection. Email was probably the best way to communicate; text message the second; phone calls the third. I had a phone number for the city’s PIO, Lynn Onstot, but in my five days in Joplin, I never actually got her on the line after one of my dozens of attempted calls actually went through.

The longer I stayed in Joplin, and I talked with the Times folks about a gameplan, the more I became cognizant of the disaster-reporting formula I’d previously seen articulated by Steve Coll of the New Yorker, who talked about the repetitiveness of covering earthquakes:

Upon repetition, covering earthquakes gradually became less pure. The reason is that as a newspaper correspondent, at least, one became schooled in the editor-feeding subgenres of earthquake coverage. These subgenre stories passed like months on a calendar across the twelve days that generally constitutes the entire attention span of editors, broadcast producers, and their audiences. Subgenre pearls which one can anticipate from Haiti but about which one should perhaps not be overly cynical include: The Late Miracle, approximately on day five, in which an improbable survivor is dug out by heroic search teams from a foreign country; The Interpretation of Meaning, a story to be filed on Sundays in Christian cultures and Fridays in Muslim ones, chronicling the efforts of religious leaders to explain God’s will in this instance (I recall sitting, riveted, on a press platform in Tehran, listening to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani deliver a remarkable Friday sermon about science and Allah); and Heading to the Exits, in which the laundry-less journalist forecasts a slow recovery complicated by political fallout and imperfect relief efforts, while implying that he/she will return over the ensuing months to chronicle the full course of the recovery.

The aftermaths of disasters long outlive peoples’ attention spans, so you have to cook up ways to keep them interesting, and one of the biggest concerns was to not repeat the coverage of the Tuscaloosa tornadoes a couple weeks earlier. The easiest way is to find an angle — How did Joplin residents respond to a second tornado warning two days after their town was destroyed? How much looting is really going on? — and try to use it as a prism to generalize the disaster in a way that conveys some essential truth about the bigger picture. Under a similar theory, you can profile folks, which I attempted a couple of times.

Sometimes this didn’t work out. I spent at least half a day at one point doing some beat reporting trying to figure out what had happened to the city’s mentally ill and special-needs folks; it turned out that they were pretty much doing OK. They were getting medicated, they were being watched — they just needed some housing, like everyone else. But this was the luxury of working for the Times, which eventually brought in a third reporter from Seattle, Kim Murphy, to help, a boon in a place where it sometimes took more than an hour to get from one end of the disaster to the other. It meant you could take a look at a story even if the angle didn’t yield anything.

As the week wore on, and the city seemed to fall into more of a rhythm — and as officials seemed to be getting crankier about questions about the emergency morgue set up to handle the dead — I wondered about the strange public-health effect of disaster journalism.

Vicky Mieseler, a VP of clinical services for the Ozark Center who was coordinating efforts to do immediate psychological treatment of some tornado victims, said that most people in a disaster fall along a bell curve. In the middle of the bell, at the biggest portion, you get the people who are upset about what happened, but are coping. On the left side of the bell, you have the people who are ridiculously content just to be alive, and on the right side of the bell, you have the people who seemed to have plunged immediately into shock.

This mostly conforms to what I’ve seen of disaster victims both in Joplin and in southern Louisana during the BP oil spill. If disaster journalism has a bias, it’s toward showing people on the right side of the bell curve, the cryers, the shirt-renders, the broken. The reality is that most people you meet in a disaster area are relatively fine, given the circumstances; people are tougher, in other words, than you’d give them credit for, considering they’d lost their homes, their way of life.

And I think this creates a strange itch in the public — we look for the most shocking images and anecdotes because they make for a more compelling story, which succeeds in making people pay attention, but also (I argue) succeeds in making viewers and readers feel more powerless and more desperate to help. Within a few days, Joplin was overwhelmed with supplies, and I’d heard reports by the end of the week that any more generic contributions, like clothes, would have to be turned away, because the city was already inundated. In reality, aren’t there homeless shelters throughout the state that could have used some of those supplies? Food banks?

It seems many folks’ reactions after a disaster are intended to let themselves feel less helpless rather than really helping solve a specific problem — here, I think of cash donations to Japan, one of the richest countries in the world, after the tsunami, while Haiti and its own rapidly aging disaster drifted farther and farther from our consciousness, despite losing vastly many more people and being in a far more desperate state of need. However, that story just doesn’t sell; our brains aren’t wired to work that way. After all, I didn’t exactly check with anyone before deciding that I was going to go down to Joplin. So maybe I shouldn’t cast stones.

So, I hope I get to make it back to Joplin. Financial aid will pour in soon, hopefully stimulating the local economy and getting houses back on foundations; there will be some waste, as there always is after a disaster, but these things are never perfect. Unfortunately, the mental health crisis that will happen there is still unfolding; the Ozark Center’s Mieseler told me that the worst of the effects will start appearing about a month from now, far from the cameras’ glow. And we should never just assume that a place will be rebuilt. When I visited the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans last summer, there were still homes with blown-out windows and their innards pouring out, the damage not unlike some homes I saw in Joplin a day after the tornado struck.

So, what did I learn in Joplin as a disaster reporter? A few odds and ends. First, that Bics are like the AK-47s of ballpoint pens: They’re cheap, they don’t jam, and you can find them everywhere. My fancy Uniball stopped working as soon as my notebook got rained through about two hours into my assignment. Second, ABC: Always Be Charging (your phone). And eat whenever you can, because you have no idea when your next meal is going to be. Take bottled water, and make friends in the disaster zone, because sometimes they provide the best help.

Oh, and this:

mattdpearce If the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, as Sontag once wrote, then so does a disaster. 28 May

Disasters might be one of the few times that journalists have a reason to actually go out and talk to regular people about their lives, which a tornado or a hurricane or an earthquake has suddenly torn open to the public. It’s a strange dual-purpose assignment in which you cover a cataclysm but also learn about the way people lived before it.

It’s just unfortunate that a tornado is sometimes what it takes.

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