Daily, I Am Grateful

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You never know when those you love most in life will be taken away. It could be cancer or an automobile accident. Or it could be a monster that descends from the sky, the way one did on Sunday, May 22, in Joplin, Mo.

On that day, an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado measuring five miles high and nearly a mile in width touched down for 13 miles, and, within 20 minutes, ripped out the heart of my hometown.

I am at home in Kansas City. My friend Beth and I are ordering pizza when she looks up from the computer and says, “A tornado hit Joplin.” Eight members of my family live in Joplin.

My brother Danny’s cell goes straight to voicemail. I try my mother, but the circuits are jammed. I dial again. Again. Again. Finally, she answers. She’s OK. Everyone’s OK. “Danny’s at Donna’s house. He’s heading to Diane’s next. The tornado didn’t hit that side of town.” Danny calls: “The whole middle of Joplin is gone.”

When the first siren sounded, he was standing in his yard talking with his neighbor, watching the sky. “It sounded like thunder growing louder and louder. Like a train,” he says. “Two trains. ”Everyone in my family did what they always do when tornado sirens sound: ride it out in bathrooms or hallways, mattresses positioned above to protect from debris. I have many memories of dragging my brother’s twin mattress to the hallway bathroom, squeezing it through the door, and crouching below it with my family and our German Shepherd, Greta.

Danny advises me not to drive down. The city has been descended upon by news media, volunteers and looters. Traffic is impeding search and rescue efforts. “There will be plenty of time,” he says. “It’s going to take Joplin years to get on her feet.” He asks me to text news, so they know what’s going on.

I check Facebook and find friends in Joplin who are still online. My friend Kristie awaits information on her sister Lorie and Lorie’s husband. Finally, she posts: they didn’t make it.

Feeling helpless, wanting to do more, I join online search sites, where family and friends living in other cities seek information about loved ones they cannot reach. I remain online, barely sleeping or eating, for the next four days.

A friend asks me to post for her missing cousin, later found in a city shelter. I call families in other cities to pass on a hotline number where they can find the status of relatives in Greenbriar nursing home, which took a direct hit. I repost the map of destruction and updated hospital lists where injured have been taken.

In Joplin, my brother volunteers in clean-up. My niece and other teens distribute water to rescue workers. My mother and sister-in-law provide free childcare for parents who still have jobs. Amid the gruesome accounts of people bludgeoned with stop signs, sucked from vehicles, and injured beyond recognition, we also hear incredible near-miss stories.

Russ, a member of our church, was at Walmart with his 9-year-old son when the ceiling collapsed. When it was over, they lay sandwiched, unharmed, between two dead, mutilated bodies. Russ covered his son’s eyes. My father’s cousin, who is developmentally disabled, sat on her sofa while walls collapsed around her. She sustained only minor scratches.
 
It’s a month before I make the drive to Joplin. I take the back way in off Highway 71, to avoid being overwhelmed. A friend says that when she first saw the destruction, her body shook uncontrollably. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon. Some of the homes have been leveled and cleared. But it still looks like a war zone, as if a bomb exploded in the heart of the city. Cars look like crunched beer cans. Houses resemble giant doll houses with missing walls and furniture intact. I see at least three houses where clothing hangs in closets amid shambles. Red numbers and Xs mark homes and cars, a tally of survivors and the dead. The gymnasium of my high school is collapsed. I remember class photos taken on the lawn more than 30 years ago. I remember Mrs. Keller’s creative writing class.

As we approach, I see how close the tornado came to my family: two blocks from my sister’s little red brick house, where she took refuge in the bathtub with her dog Mandy; several blocks from where my niece was visiting a friend; six blocks from my mother’s and brother’s homes; nine blocks from another sister’s home. All are safe. It’s as if they were cupped in the hands of my father, who died less than a year ago.

“Just think,” one sister says. “You could have lost all of your family at one time.” I know. And daily, I am grateful.

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