Monday, May 23, 2011

The Lucky Ones: A Near-Miss From the Joplin Tornado


JOPLIN, Mo. -- My trip to Joplin on Sunday afternoon was going to be nothing special. I was just going to pick up a new cell phone and get some treats for my dogs.

But around 5:30 p.m., as I left Northpark Mall on the north side of the city, I saw the menacing clouds in the sky. I turned on the radio when I got in my car and listened as the announcers relayed information about the storms that were in Cherokee County, Kan., at the time.

As I listened, they were predicting the storm was going to go about 5 or 6 miles north of where it actually hit. That meant I would have had to drive through it to go home, so I decided to stay around until it passed.

I went to the Target at Seventh and Range Line (to give you an idea of where that is in relation to the damage, most of it was between 15th and 26th streets). Also in the store were a couple from Neosho, Mo., a town about 25 miles south of Joplin, and a family from Miami, Okla., located about 30 miles to the west.

About 20 minutes after my arrival, the managers told everyone to go to the back of the store by the dressing rooms. We could see the front doors from there. Suddenly, the skies turned from gray to pitch black. Then it sounded like hail was hitting the roof. It lasted about 10 to 15 minutes.

When it passed, we were allowed to leave, but I didn't know which way the storm tracked, so I decided to stay around. So, too, the couples from Neosho and Miami. The store had backup power. The Seventh and Range Line area was untouched. We were the lucky ones.

For some reason, the traffic light at Seventh and Range Line -- Joplin's busiest intersection -- was still working and it was a good thing. We could see cars blowing through the other dark lights. Had they been doing that at Seventh and Range Line, there would have been a 20-car pile-up.

About 30 minutes after the storm, a family of four walked in. The kids were probably 2 and 5 years old. They were carrying a laptop. They said they went into the bathroom in their apartment and it was the only room remaining after the storm passed. That laptop is probably their only remaining possession.

A lot of the Target workers were young, high school age. They did a remarkable job of keeping their cool. But one of them started to get agitated. One of her co-workers got a hold of her and I guess she heard her family was OK. Somehow, most people's cell phones still worked. I had full signal and people who knew where I was, they were texting me.

Another family came in an SUV, the back of which looked as if it had been rear-ended by a semi. The boy who got out with the family said a tree hit it. You could see a branch sticking out the window.

Another guy came in and took off his shirt. He had welts all over his back.

And then people started trickling in. A man walked through the parking lot, pulling a rolling suitcase behind him. The managers handed out candy to the kids and let the people walking in have whatever they wanted from the Starbucks. The food was going to spoil anyway, so they figured might as well hand it out. (A Golden Corral down the road that somehow managed to avoid damage despite being in the "Danger Zone" was offering its food to any workers for the same reason ... get it to people who need it before it goes bad.)

More people trickled in and managers decided to stay open all night. Since a Walmart and a Walgreens were wiped out, people were going to need supplies and they were the closest store to the stricken area that could still operate. They still told the high schoolers and anyone concerned about family to go home.

I left about 8:15. I got in my car and turned the radio back. The group that owns most of the stations were simulcasting on all of them. They were allowing people to call in to ask for information about loved ones. One woman was looking for a 77-year-old woman who lived in the area who needed oxygen. About 20 minutes later, someone else called in to say they had found her and they'd gotten her to somewhere on the north side so she could get her oxygen machine running.

Earlier in the day, I'd been in the area that got hit worst. The images that I've seen since then remind me of what Greensburg, Kan., looked like when I drove through it after the 2007 tornado outbreak.

One fortunate thing: Joplin has two hospitals and they're across the street from each other, so the patients who were in the one that got hit and needed the most care could be taken across the road. Then they started taking the ones hurt not as badly to Springfield and Pittsburg. I've been told the Pittsburg hospital got 44 patients from Joplin in the hour after it was over.

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