Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Our May 22 in Joplin

Almost a week has passed since my family, Jaime and I found ourselves stuck on the literal edge of the deadly Joplin tornado. Jaime's ready to stop talking about it, and suppose I am too. But I decided that I wanted to gather all the pictures and video from that day and to create an archive of what happened, exactly, while I still remember. (Though I'm sure it'll be hard to forget.)

I'm hoping it'll serve as a record of the event for me, as an explanation for those who might be interested and as something that Lexi can look back on once she's old enough to understand what actually happened. At the moment, she doesn't appear to, and for that I'm grateful.

May 22 got off to a stressful start. Mom, my sister Annie and I rushed the kids the 25 miles from Carthage, where my parents live, to Springhouse Gardens, where my cousin on my mom's side, Taylor Anne, was supposed to get married at 6 p.m. Lexi, 6, was the flower girl. My nephews Joe, 7, and Jack, 5, were the ring bearers.

But when we arrived, Taylor and Annie started looking at the weather forecast, and it wasn't good.

Storms were due to arrive exactly when the wedding was starting. Taylor made the bold decision to move the wedding forward four hours to 2 p.m., which sent those of us at the rehearsal scrambling.

Mom and I rushed back to Carthage to change and to get the kids fed and in their wedding clothes. Annie, Joe and Jack's mom, stayed at the venue to help put the wedding together quickly.

The wedding was awesome. Jaime had agreed to be the photographer, and she arrived in town just in time. Taylor and Steve were married by 3:30 p.m., and she and her friends danced and danced.

At 5-ish, Lexi overheard my dad say that Joplin was under a tornado watch. Ever since hail broke the windows out of our house a couple of years ago, Lexi has had a lot of weather anxiety. She got pretty upset and begged to go back to Grammy's house, which was 25 miles northeast of the wedding venue.

I decided we would go. Jaime, who'd just shot the newlyweds loading into their getaway car, said she'd follow me back to Carthage.

We left the venue and it was only sprinkling. The sky didn't look bad, so I figured we'd make it back without a problem. Then, Travis, who was watching radar back in Wichita, started sending me text messages.

In my frenzy to get out of there, I hadn't noticed the tornado warning text. I'd only seen the one about hail. We'd driven about five miles toward Joplin, and thinking the only threat was hail (and reliving images of smashed Delano cars and windows) I decided I'd better find something to park underneath and wait it out. At that same moment, I heard a loud clunk on the top of my car which I thought was hail but now realize was probably debris.

I turned onto McLelland and found a carport in a cluster of medical offices. Jaime pulled up beside me and I explained my plan. She drove around the corner and found another carport.

Not long after, I realized we were in trouble. Travis was frantically demanding that I head south, but I was in an unfamiliar place, and I had no idea which way south was. I hung up and called Jaime, telling her we needed to get out of there

But it was too late. The sirens began to wail and I noticed the rain moving completely horizontally in a way I'd never seen before. Panicked, I left my carport, pulled up behind Jaime, got out, grabbed Lexi in her flower girl dress from the back seat, and told Jaime that we couldn't stay in our cars during a tornado. That's a tornado rule hammered into Kansans' brains from birth. I now realize getting out of the cars was probably not a great idea. But I also now realize that, stuck in that moment with no time to act, there were no good ideas left.

The wind started to blow so violently, it almost knocked us over, thwarting a brief idea Jaime and I had to throw a metal bench through the glass at the medical office so we could get inside. We dropped down in a spot along some rocky landscaping against the building and wrapped our arms around each other with Lexi completely covered in between us.

We were being pelted with rain. The spot we sat was just under the B in the picture above. I remember thinking that we shouldn't stay between the building and Jaime's car in case the wind blew the car against us. I now realize that if the wind had blown the car against us, that would have been the least of our problems.

It didn't take long for me to realize that we were in the tornado. As we huddled together, I watched two giant power poles fall over into the parking lot just in front of us. I watched the roof of the carport I had been under just minutes before lift up and blow away. A blue dumpster started skittering across the parking lot toward us as though it were on wheels.

Lexi wasn't crying, just asking a million frantic questions a minute. "What's happening mommy?" "Is this a tornado?" "When will this be over?" "Are we going to die?" I can't remember what if anything I said to her. I remember Jaime saying she was scared, over and over. I remember thinking, "This cannot be happening right now." It was all so surreal, like watching a movie. I wondered a couple of times if we were going to make it. Jaime told me later that she did, too.

After about a minute, I could feel the intensity lessening. The wind calmed and the rain picked up. A bolt of lighting struck so closely, we felt the electricity. We sat there, shivering against the building, for probably another 10 minutes, trying to decide what to do. We were freezing and confused but also incredibly relieved. Maybe even oddly giddy. At one point, I remember, I ridiculously tried to dial 911 on my soaking wet iPhone. Of course there was no service. And even if there had been, 911 had much bigger problems than three wet and scared Kansans who'd survived without a scratch.

Finally, we decided to get back in the car. Afraid that the power lines would have filled the water in the parking lot with electricity, Jaime stretched her long legs from the rocks to her car door then pulled it closer to us. I put the soaking wet flower girl in the backseat, then got in the passenger's seat.

From where we sat, we could see the top of St. John's hospital, and we could see that it was shredded. Things were silent around us for 10 or 15 minutes. Then, we started noticing headlights of cars driving around and around the edge of the hospital. People started driving into the parking lot where we were sitting, ignoring us and desperately searching for an alternative route into the hospital. Several just drove over the grass and curbs in their trucks, making their own path. At one point, we saw three young people in hospital gowns walk in front of our car. We later realized they were walking from St. John's, which was in front of us, to Freeman Hospital, which was directly behind us and hadn't been hit. But at the moment, it was very confusing.

After we got in the car, Jaime's phone rang. It was Travis. It'd been 15 minutes since I'd hung up on him, and he was sitting in his apartment, helplessly watching the destruction on television, not being able to reach us. While we were on the phone with him, my mom got through to Jaime's phone. She insisted that we stay put. She and dad were on their way to save us from the power lines. We lost her before we could tell her exactly where we were.

For the next hour, we stayed put, partially because mom had been so insistent and partially because we had no idea what we should do and were still in too much shock to make any decisions. Plus, a young man in a pickup truck who drove past us told us that the highway between Joplin and Carthage was covered in overturned semis and warned us we'd never make it back.

Cell phone service was in and out. When the water went down, Jaime got out and changed clothes and got her cameras out. We started getting text messages from Brian Corn, the Eagle's photo editor. He let us know where we were and what had happened and he urged Jaime to get whatever pictures she could. She and I talked and realized we were fine, the threat was gone and that she was on the very edge of a huge news event that likely no other media would be able to get to for a while. She hiked down a ways and shot the picture of St. John's that media outlets around the world used for much of the evening, until more dramatic and awful pictures started streaming out of Joplin.

Here's a montage Jaime put together of moments before and after our experience. In the first clip, my headlights are visible under the carport in the distance. The roof of that carport, as you'll see in later before and after shots, is the one I watched blow away five minutes later. The powerlines I drive under are the ones I watched fall. The flashes of light in the background are transformers exploding.

It was getting close to 7 p.m. and Jaime and I knew there wasn't a whole lot of daylight left. We were still trying to obey my mother, who we couldn't reach, but we knew we needed to start moving. We decided Jaime would take 30 minutes and walk down into the thick of it to take some pictures. She was getting out of the car to go when Brian texted and said the hospital might explode and that we should get out of there. That's all we needed to hear. I got Lexi in my car and Jaime and I both backed out and headed back for 32nd street, which borders Freeman hospital.

As we pulled out, a lady in a pickup truck pulled in beside us crying. I asked her if she was okay and she said that her husband was a patient at St. John's and she was trying to get to him.

We drove away, and I could see Jaime behind me with her camera out the window shooting images of the awful things we were seeing -- mass confusion, citizens directing traffic, people violently honking at each other trying to get through, twisted and broken signs and buildings. We were still on the edge of the damage. The worst thing we saw were pickup trucks driving past with feet sticking out of the ends of the beds.

Once we got moving, we found that our path back to Carthage was fairly clear. We pulled over on the highway once so that Jaime could shoot a picture of one of the several overturned semis along the side of the road.

As we got further away from Joplin, our cell service improved. I finally reached my mom, who told me she and my dad had spent the last hour looking for us everywhere. They were headed back to Carthage, too.

Mom and dad had left the wedding about 10 or 15 minutes after we had (the wedding venue was untouched.) They drove into Joplin just as everything had ended and encountered downed power lines everywhere. My sister and her boys were following my parents in her car, but when my sister saw the power lines, she turned around and went the other way. I later learned that her cell phone was in my purse the whole time. Annie later told us she took shelter in a stranger's house, but we couldn't reach her. My mom was panicked when she and dad arrived back at the house. "I just turned around and she was gone," she kept saying, over and over. After about 20 minutes, though, Annie's car came around the corner. We had a very happy reunion in the driveway, and Annie informed us she was getting the hell out of town. She left to go back to Kansas City about a half hour later.

The next few hours were insane. Jaime sent her pictures back to the Eagle in from my mom's kitchen table. Travis tweeted a link to one as soon as it went on, and in no time, the Eagle was getting calls from major news networks requesting interviews with Jaime. She was on the phone with CNN Sunday night, as they showed her pictures. She did a live on-air interview with CNN on Monday morning when she returned to Joplin to take some more pictures. She also was on FOX News.

I called Nick, who was on vacation in England (and asleep) and left him a message telling him what happened and that Lexi was okay. I then returned a call to my colleague Beccy Tanner back at the Eagle, and she wrote a story about our experience. In the following hours, we found out that everyone from the wedding was fine, amazingly, even though everyone was leaving the wedding when the storm hit. The groom's 15 or so relatives visiting from Seattle, no doubt, are still traumatized.

My cousin Kendra, who is my dad's brother's daughter, was at home, and her house in Joplin was in the path of the tornado. She and her husband and two children rode out the storm in their laundry room. They are all fine, but the roof of her house is gone, as are all her windows. She has an amazing collection of pictures, including one of a blue X on her front door (apparently, that's the color X you want) and of two-by-fours stabbed through her siding. She and her husband have rented an apartment back in Joplin while the insurance company decides what to do about her house.

When we got back home on Monday evening, I sat down and tried to figure out exactly where we'd been, how close we'd been.

Jaime, who at this point was completely emotionally fried, reluctantly agreed to send me these before and after shots of the view from where we sat. In the first one, you see my headlights, the carport over my head, the powerlines, the dumpster. In the second shot, you see that all those things are gone.

The map below shows where we were in relationship to the path of the storm. When the sirens sounded, it was already on top of us. We were at McLelland and 32nd street, which
appears to be about where the storm formed and, mercifully, moved away from us.

The days since the storm have been surreal. I think about it all the time, and I have to stop myself from reading constantly about the aftermath.

I have so many feelings. I'm overcome with what ifs. I see the horrible things that happened to people in Joplin during the exact moments that the three of us sat against that building, soaking wet and so happy we'd survived. I feel stupid that I didn't turn the radio on and that I didn't get us into a building when we still had a chance. I drove right past a McDonald's that survived the storm fine, but I thought I was just hiding from hail. I also feel guilty that I got Lexi out of the car and in the elements during a tornado. And I feel even guiltier thinking so much about my experience, when compared to what other people in Joplin went through, my experience was absolutely nothing.

I also feel sad for Joplin, the town where my mother was born and raised and where I spent a good portion of my childhood holidays and summers. Amazingly, so far, mom hasn't personally known any of the victims. My cousin, Taylor, called me on Monday and said that she's devastated that she's lost the town she grew up in. The anniversary of her beautiful wedding in Joplin, May 22, 2011, will also go down on record as the most horrible day in Joplin history.

I was encouraged by a friend who's a counselor to have Lexi draw a picture of our experience, from her perspective. Lexi's quite an artist, and I think her interpretation sums it all up perfectly.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Jaime the showoff is not the only one who can take good pics of Lil'Ro. This one's mine-all-mine.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The photo editor liked this one

I've been toying with the idea of doing a photo-a-day, sorta like Jaime and Lori, but I do so hate to be a follower. I'll keep toying, probably, until it becomes only a six-month commitment (sometime in June?) then get started.

But in the meantime, I thought I'd post this one, which I was sort of proud of and even prouder of when photo ed Brian Corn said he was proud of it. It's for a story I'm doing Friday about some new frozen yogurt shops in town. It will run in black and white in the paper, which is a culinary crime.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Big fun on the Ferris Wheel

The highlight of our trip to the fair on Sunday.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Goin' back to Cali

I'd like to. Soon. Here are some photos from our recent trip, a bachelorette party of sorts for Jaime.

We started the trip off right with some proseco by the pool. I'm in favor of any state where it's 78 and sunny all the time.

Jaime and I on our hotel balcony.

Walking on the beach, which was not nearly as swimming friendly as our hotel pool.

Finally realized my lifelong (or monthslong, anyway) dream of sampling some Pinkberry. Jaime and I only drove about an hour through traffic to get it.

Jaime's California cuisine, healthy and fresh.

My California cuisine, carby and bacon loaded.

Mmmmm. Fish tacos poolside.

Crepe stuffed with banana and Nutella. Went back to this place two mornings in a row.

In front of the Chinese Theatre on what would become the longest night of our lives. Our flight left at 6 a.m., so we decided to roam the streets of L.A. all night rather than check out of our
expensive hotel at 3 a.m.

Sustenance for the long night ahead.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Cabin

My mom's family has a cabin in Ozark-land, out in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a crik (as they call it in Missoura.) I used to go there all the time as a kid but haven't been in probably ten years.

Last weekend, Lexi and I went with my parents for the afternoon. That's the cabin up on the ledge. It's hardly fancy, but it's cozy. And has a great view. And, ya know, a crick.

Mom and Lexi in the crick, under the cabin.

Crick swimmin' hole.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Susan Peters roast

Was pleasantly surprised after stepping off stage to find that Lori had taped most of my roast of Susan Peters. (Thanks, LAL.) I think I could have slowed it down in a few spots. But thanks to a little Bombay Sapphire, I survived.

It was fun, but I'm glad it's over.