Joplin tornado survivor aided by GCU now a student

One of the few remaining walls of a home in Joplin, Missouri, displayed a defiant message after a deadly tornado tore through the city in 2011.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

It was dinnertime when Carey Prater and her husband, Tim, heard the tornado warning. But living in Joplin, Missouri, on the edge of Tornado Alley, they had seen their fair share of severe weather.

“It looked from the radar that it was going north,” said Carey, who continued to make dinner for the family despite the deteriorating weather.

Incoming Grand Canyon University freshman Lexi Prater recalls many things about the devastating tornado that tore through her hometown of Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. But the memory that stands out? The GCU employees who helped her family and inspired her to become a Lope.

But Alexis, the Praters' normally laid-back 8-year-old daughter, wasn't as calm. She frantically grabbed her dog, Neo, and her guinea pig, Piglet, then threw a Pokémon doll and her Girl Scout sash into her backpack and insisted to her parents: “We’ve got to go! We’ve GOT to go!”

“I told my husband, ‘You know what? She is freaking out. Let’s just go,’” said Carey.

So they grabbed Lexi’s 3-year-old sister, Reese, and headed to Tim’s parents’ house. The storm was barreling down by then and the family battened down, taking shelter in the basement.

“It got really cold,” Lexi recalled, as the sky turned an eerie black and the monstrous, 200-mile-per-hour wind furiously lashed out.

Just 15 minutes later, at around 5:41 p.m. on May 22, 2011, a tornado that spanned about a mile wide, with multiple vortexes wrapped and hidden by the rain, mercilessly chewed through Joplin. It destroyed about a third of the town, including the Praters’ home.

The EF5 tornado – the most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita tornado intensity scale – was the deadliest tornado to strike the United States since the 1940s. It killed more than 160 people, injuring more than 1,000 others and causing a staggering $2.8 billion in damages and still ranks as the costliest single tornado in U.S. history.

Johnson said the devastation of his hometown, seen here a few days after the tornado, was heartbreaking.

But while Lexi, the normally laid-back 8-year-old, remembers many of the details of that day, what has stuck with her 10 years later is what happened afterward: the kindness her family received from Grand Canyon University, whose employees loaded up a white GCU van with “1,200 miles to Joplin” sprawled across it and brought what they could to help.

It is that warm memory that inspired Lexi, now 18, to apply to GCU as an online film production student. She will begin classes in the fall.

“I was thinking of colleges I wanted to apply to,” Lexi said from Joplin, where her family has remained, moving just a few blocks away from the home the tornado took from them. “I remembered GCU.”

GCU makes an impression

When Aaron Johnson heard about the tornado that hit his hometown of Joplin, he felt helpless.

The Grand Canyon Education university counselor, who worked in GCU's Peoria Avenue offices at the time, checked CNN and furiously sent text and Facebook messages to check in on family and friends.

“It was devastating when it happened … it broke you,” he said.

He wanted to do something to help and spearheaded the GCU Drive to Joplin relief effort, gathering clothing, shoes, toiletries and basic supplies from people in his office, the GCU site in Tempe and at the main campus. Johnson drove with then-Community Outreach Manager Jose Moreno and then-Communications staff member Jennifer Wills to Joplin to deliver those supplies to several families.

“I just wanted to do anything,” Johnson said of how that feeling of helplessness evolved into a desire to help and then “just turned into something really cool.”

University Counselor Aaron Johnson (fifth from left) is from Joplin, Missouri, and spearheaded the GCU Drive to Joplin relief effort. Lexi Prater (fourth from left), now a GCU student, hugs mom Carey.

One of those families GCU embraced was the Prater family.

Johnson knew Carey Prater from their days in college at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

“He knew we had been directly hit by the tornado,” Carey said.

“We had nothing. My sister – she was 3 – didn’t even have shoes,” Lexi recalled of the family leaving their house so fast that they didn’t have time to grab much. And when they did return home, “there was nothing we could really save,” she said.

Johnson remembers driving into town that first night and seeing the destruction for the first time: “When you come over the crest of the hill (descending into Joplin), you could see it immediately, the scope of the damage. It looked like the closest thing to a war zone I’d ever seen.”

So when Johnson and Moreno showed up in that white GCU van, the U-Haul of shoes, clothing and other supplies towed behind them, Lexi’s spirit brightened, and she has held onto that memory ever since.

“They were really nice,” she remembers.

Carey, the executive director of a senior living community, said Lexi grew up in organizations such as the Girl Scouts and always has embraced the idea of taking care of the community, much like GCU does.

The Joplin tornado remains the costliest tornado event in U.S. history (Graphic by N. Hanacek/National Institute of Standards and Technology)

That day, she took care of the closest people to her – her family – by insisting they leave their home and seek shelter. Lexi was named a Red Cross Everyday Hero in 2012 and received a bronze cross for lifesaving from the Girl Scouts for her actions that day.

What GCU did “was very impressionable to her,” Carey said of the University’s support of her family in its most vulnerable time.

Johnson said that even though his trip back to Joplin after the tornado broke his heart in so many ways, “It was awesome to feel like we made any difference.”

Lexi will tell you they did.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at 602-639-7901 or at [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: The drive to Joplin -- a traveler's diary

GCU Today: GCU launches 'Drive to Joplin' for tornado victims

GCU Today: GCU employee in Joplin making his presence felt

GCU Today: Amid its losses, Joplin teaches a powerful lesson

GCU Today: Seven months later, Joplin, Missouri, stronger than ever

GCU Today: Slideshow -- photos from Joplin


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