By Jennifer Willis
When I first volunteered to go on the trip to Joplin, Mo., to document the experience for everyone at GCU, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I know people say that kind of thing all the time, but it’s the truth.
Having grown up in the Southwest, I have never experienced any sort of natural disaster. The closest thing was a small aftershock from an earthquake in California. Based on photos and video from Joplin, I thought I had an idea of what to expect when our team of three arrived there last Friday evening after traveling 1,200 miles in a van.
The pictures told only part of the story. It’s hard to describe exactly what I saw when we drove into Joplin. Others described the scene as if a bomb had been dropped and the wave from the blast had expanded outward, taking out everything in its path.
Coming over a hill and into the heart of the destruction was surreal. The landscape appeared to be from a war movie, with rubble everywhere and blown-out buildings that could fall at any second. Having no personal connections to Joplin, Community Outreach Manager Jose Moreno and I experienced the emotional aspect through Enrollment Counselor Aaron Johnson, a Joplin native witnessing the devastation to his hometown.
Fiddling with my camera as we drove through town, Aaron’s gasp snapped my head up and I saw what lay in front of us. The look on his face was sobering as he saw places he once knew that were now gone.
Large trees had been ripped out of the ground by their roots. Restaurants and stores had become empty shells, and houses and apartments had been reduced to piles of toothpicks. The people we talked to all said the same thing: The most shocking part was that they could stand on one side of town and see what was left of St. John’s Hospital standing eerily in the distance — something they never would have been able to do. Now there is nothing but wasteland in the 12 miles between the hospital and Joplin High School.
Hearing the death-toll numbers on TV, we asked ourselves: How was it that only 142 died and not hundreds more? How could anyone have survived this?
Visiting with the families the next day was both amazing and inspirational. Their stories of survival were incredible.
● Eight-year-old Alexis Prater saved her family. Tim and Carey Prater heard the tornado warning but paid little attention to it, thinking it was a few miles north, and continued to make dinner. However, Alexis began to panic, running to the door with her backpack filled with items such as her Girl Scout sash and Pokémon doll. She insisted they leave right away. Unable to calm her down, Carey told Tim to grab 3-year-old Reese, and all of them headed to Tim’s parents’ house, which has a basement. The tornado tore through town just as they shut the basement door.
● Then there was Carey’s 82-year-old grandmother, Katherine Elmborg, who lived across the street. She was sitting in her chair in the living room when her kitchen door flung open. She said she had an urge to shut the door, so she did.
Just then, the tornado reached her house and she fell to the floor. Her refrigerator and washing machine tipped over her, forming a teepee that probably saved her life. Her house destroyed, she walked away with a few scratches — and a jaw-dropping story.
“God was looking out for me,” Katherine said.
● Our last visit, with Sylvia Smith, was even more astonishing. She was driving to a friend’s house to watch a movie when the traffic signal in front of her went black and she knew she was in trouble.
She turned around and sped down the road, but it was too late. Her vehicle was picked up and thrown several blocks. She squeezed down on the floor after a piece of debris flew through her window, hitting her on the head.
While her vehicle was being flung around, she was able to make a brief phone call to her mother. She said she didn’t think she was going to make it and asked that her mother take care of her 17-year-old son, Dalton. She doesn’t remember much after that until a man put his hand on her shoulder to ask if she was all right.
In a strange way, Sylvia said, it was a blessing in disguise. She had been wanting things in her life to change, and she thinks this was God’s little push in that direction.
“This is the fun part,” she said. “I’m excited about the future because I have a future to be excited about.”
As we left Joplin and I spoke with Aaron about all we had seen and heard, something he said rang true.
We had gone to Joplin feeling sorry for these people and their losses. But they didn’t need that from us. Yes, it was a sad and horrible thing that happened on May 22. Many are in counseling and have nightmares.
But they know they will be OK.
As we were told several times during our short stay: “It’s just stuff. It can be replaced. We have our lives, and that’s all that matters.”
That kind of outlook puts life into perspective. I hope that the next time I’m down and feeling sorry for myself, I’m able to remember Joplin, a small town with a large spirit.
Reach Jennifer Willis at 639.7383 or [email protected].