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Torn Asunder: How the Deadliest Twister in Decades Ripped Through Joplin, Mo.

11 minute read
David Von Drehle

Warm air rises. The earth is an elegant machine, and this is one of its simple and tireless engines, recycling the oceans into life-giving rains, wafting rainbow-striped hot-air balloons into clear skies, putting the dance in the flame of a birthday candle. This law must not be thwarted. There is hell to pay.

On Sunday, May 22, sometime after 5 p.m. C.T. in the Midwest, a column of warm air struggled against a ceiling of colder air pouring in from the north. When at last the irresistible engine pushed a hole through the ceiling, the pent-up energy shot upward in a mad rush, whirling and roaring. It could have happened anywhere on the mostly empty prairie. This time it happened as the air mass passed through the south side of Joplin, Mo.

It sucked the roof from St. John’s Regional Medical Center and shattered the windows, sweeping reams of medical records heavenward. It snipped utility lines like thread and pulverized St. Mary’s Church and school yet left the giant cross towering over the rubble, unscathed.

(See photos from the front lines of the tornadoes’ destruction.)

Chewing through homes, apartment houses and storefronts, the vortex crossed Main Street and climbed a hill toward the house where Kay Boyd, 63, was listening to KSN newscaster Caitlin McArdle’s increasingly urgent command: “Take cover! I’m telling you, take cover right now!” Boyd wanted to hide in the tub, but her husband Ed, 65, steered her into a closet beneath the stairs. “It seemed like it went on forever,” she said — the broken glass and plaster and beams hammering at the closet door in the screaming wind — but forever was only a matter of seconds.

Aggie Elbert, 84, cowered in her basement with her daughter and small grandchildren, thankful for a cache of hard hats as her house exploded overhead. The storm crested the hill and started down toward Joplin High School, splintering a neighborhood as it went. Pamela Merriman, four days shy of 28, forgot the taco meat on the stove, called for her children, rushed them into the bathroom and wrapped them in a quilt. In the deafening wind, she hugged Seth, 9, and Samia, 3, on the floor of the shower, scarcely able to hear the old brick fireplace tumbling through the living-room floor, or the garage door crashing through the wall beside her, or the bleachers from the high school ball field as they whistled across a city block and wrapped around her front-yard tree.

The tempest bent the goalposts flat to the ground and riddled the gridiron with timber, pipe fragments, bits of asphalt shingles and a bouquet of artificial flowers. It peeled open the high school gym, flinging a roof girder hundreds of yards across Iowa Street. Another school, Franklin Tech, fell in a heap.

(See pictures of the devastation from the tornadoes in the South.)

With the recklessness of youth, Allen Godby, 22, raced toward his mother-in-law’s house with a carload of assorted family members. He is from Oklahoma, “so I’ve been outrunning tornadoes all my life,” he says. He did not outrun this one. Pulling into the yard, he tore at his daughter’s seat belt as the twister finished with the high school and crossed the street. Godby fell to the ground on top of 4-year-old DaNia. Spinning debris raked his back and head. He felt himself being sucked from the ground and dug his fingers into the mud. When at last he looked up, he thought the whole family must be dead — but one by one they called weakly from the rubble.

Onward the storm churned, destroying some 2,000 structures, damaging 6,000 more, tearing up 1,800 acres of city built over many decades. It ripped its way across Range Line Road, a busy commercial corridor, burst the Home Depot, dropped the Walmart roof onto the heads of shoppers. Jonathan Merriman’s cell phone rang. It was his wife Pamela calling. She was trapped with the kids in the shower under the garage door. She needed him, and he wanted to go to her, but first he had to survive. He crawled under the sinks in the Walmart bathroom as the roof flew off and the walls fell in — and the sinks somehow held steady and Jonathan was safe.

See why nothing is certain in Joplin.

Storm Surge
It was the deadliest tornado in the 61 years that the National Weather Service has been keeping official statistics: 123 bodies counted by May 25, with crews still searching for more. At its most furious, the half-mile-wide killer maxed out on the Enhanced Fujita scale — EF-5, spinning winds in excess of 200 m.p.h. The power of such a phenomenon is difficult to describe: It snaps utility poles like pencils, tears the door handles from cars, crumbles brick walls the way a child crumbles cookies. It blows floor joists like straw, drives twigs through plate glass, strips the bark from trees, rains automobiles.

No one in Joplin — a growing community in southwestern Missouri where the Show Me State meets up with Oklahoma and Kansas — expected such a storm, though perhaps people should have. Joplin is smack in the middle of Tornado Alley, and the tornadoes have been frequent and furious this year. Just weeks earlier, a squadron of twisters, some EF-5, tore through Tuscaloosa, Ala., on a rampage through the South. Is this the “climate chaos” that scientists of global warming have been warning about? At the opposite end of Missouri from Joplin, miles of prime farmland lie soaked under the record flood-waters overflowing the Mississippi and its tributaries. Pattern or coincidence?

(See America’s 10 deadliest tornadoes.)

The answer awaits more data. The heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gases is well proved; the precise impacts on local climates are less clear. Whirlwinds and floods have been with us forever — old hat even in the days of the Bible scribes. But as humankind multiplies and spreads, more and more people risk encountering extreme and deadly weather.

So far this year, tornadoes have killed more than 500 Americans and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of property — and the season is far from over. Perhaps the surprise is that the toll is not even higher. The population of the U.S. has more than doubled since 1950 and sprawled. Thousands of square miles have been populated in the tornado zone in the suburbs and exurbs of cities like Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., and Nashville. Where a farmhouse once stood amid rolling acres of cropland, there are now rows of McMansions or fields of townhouses convenient to shopping, schools and church.

We can cover the land and alter the atmosphere, but we can’t change the rules of nature. Warm air rises.

(See a tale of two tornadoes.)

Grief and Gratitude
Hollie Hounschell, 26, was preparing for a party on Sunday night, one ear to the TV as she painted her nails, the other cocked for the doorbell. Her ex, Joe Winters, was due to drop off their daughter Abigail. She took in the news that hail was falling in Webb City, some seven miles north of Joplin.

After a rough passage, things were coming together for Hounschell. Her landlord had finally patched the holes in the bedroom and the kitchen and applied a fresh coat of the paint she’d picked out — a warm shade of green. Now she could unpack her stuff and make that new start that comes with feeling settled in.

Ding dong. When Hounschell opened the front door, she noticed lightning slashing the sky behind Abigail and her father. Suddenly McArdle’s voice was rising from the TV: “Take cover!” Hounschell had a basement, but not everyone was so lucky. A couple of bewildered neighbors appeared at the door begging for help. In all, five people hurried down the hall and into the tiny cellar as wood splinters — some of them freshly painted green — and knives of broken glass and needles of fiberglass insulation scoured the air. The neighborhood turned into fragments.

See why natural disasters in the U.S. are getting worse.

Afterward, Hounschell struggled from the debris, teetering in her black dress and high heels. Emerging from the basement, she could see the high school three blocks away, down the hill behind her house. That was new. Every structure, every leaf on every tree that had obscured the view was gone.

All around, there were voices calling for help and other dazed survivors creeping from belowground or picking their way through the ruins from closets and bathrooms. The smell from ruptured gas mains was overpowering. A house thundered into flames. Would-be rescuers dodged utility lines to reach loved ones. Jim Winters — Joe’s dad — paused on his way to Hounschell’s house to help a group of men lift a wall to free a trapped victim. Too late. The man bled to death before their eyes. “His skin just went white,” Winters said. “I’ve watched a lot of horror movies, but …”

(See how you can help tornado victims.)

Two blocks east, Regina Lane ducked under the steel bar that had narrowly missed piercing her head and blinked her eyes in disbelief. Her daughter Rachel Long — a voice on the cell phone moments before the storm hit, saying, “Mama, take care! I love you! I love you!” — was now running toward her with bare feet and a look of unfathomable relief.

The prospect of cleaning up Joplin seemed unimaginable, even as the hours turned into days. Perhaps a third of this city of 50,000 residents was damaged or destroyed, leaving a mess almost impossible to comprehend. An EF-5 tornado pens a signature that makes no sense. You stare and ponder until slowly it comes into focus: that’s an upside-down, half-buried piano; a garage-door spring; the colored gravel from a fish tank; a car bumper entwined in a brass bed; a flat-screen TV with a door molding straight through it; the little man from the top of a soccer trophy; a Barbie shoe. Clean up suggests a return to an orderly past. In the coming weeks and months, Joplin will have to scrape bare a blasted hole in its heart.

And yet as people crept through the jumble, filling boxes almost at random with soggy clothing, ruined electronics, rescued photographs and woeful fragments of children’s toys, what was most striking were the persistent expressions of gratitude. There was Aggie Elbert, who salvaged little more than an old clock and a broken statue of the Madonna and Child, murmuring, “God was good to us.” Regina Lane, saying, “I don’t know how we made it out, because so many perished. We’re so fortunate.” Ed Boyd, looking tearfully at the little closet under the staircase in the middle of his vanished home, declaring, “Those stairs saved our lives.”

(See a video of the twisters in the South.)

There was a lot of talk the day before the storm about whether the world would end. An old preacher in California had declared that time was running out and bought ads in major newspapers and on billboards to spread the news. The Joplin storm was a summons back to reality, a reminder that a world can end at any moment even as new worlds begin. Five patients died when the storm hit St. John’s hospital; the same day, four babies were born at Freeman hospital across the street.

Pamela Merriman, now just two days shy of 28, had a sense of this as she looked -into the tiny triangle of space that had held her and her two children after the roof dropped and the walls tumbled and the bathroom was shoved into the living room under the garage door. Imagine a doghouse, then go a little smaller. “I feel really good that I was able to protect my children,” she said.

She surveyed her former possessions, the stuff of a world now lost. “I’d be happy with just walking away from all of this,” she concluded. “Dump it all and just start over. Happy birthday — I’m alive.”

See why we’re not prepared for twisters.

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