Every year around this time in Joplin there is this tension building up to May 22nd. That day. That day put our sleepy town on the map. Every time we are out of town (regardless of how far away) and I’m asked where we are from, and I answer, the person immediately asks if we were affected by the tornado. That is how we are known.
We all have our stories and our memories. A drive down most of our streets are a constant reminder. Five years ago on the 22nd of May my dad preached at our church. Ironically, he preached about storms in our lives. I remember standing outside after church talking with my parents and feeling that funny feeling. If you have lived around here long enough you can feel it too – when the weather is just a little off. The sun is warm and the air is cool. We parted ways and my parents went to lunch with two couples from our church. One of the couples was Joe and Cynthia Graham.
Joe was facing his own storm in his life. He had cancer. That day, Joe shared that whatever happened he was at peace because He knew that God was sovereign and that he was ready to live or die in victory. My dad would recall that conversation only a few hours later that day when he would need it more than ever. He has always carried that dialogue with him in his heart.
We never got excited about the weather before May 22, 2011. In fact, we loved it because we thought something exciting might happen. We would sit on our deck and watch storms roll in. That particular day, we were playing soccer when the sirens began. We played a little longer, eventually put the ball away and piled in the car to go to a neighbor’s house for dinner (while the sirens were still blaring). How stupid of us. You just get so used to it and become complacent.
Shortly after we arrived at our friends’ house, their family from Mississippi began calling in a panic. We learned from them the devastation that was taking place in our sweet town. As Chris and I were listening to their conversations, we began to realize that the tornado had blown through the area where my parents had just moved three weeks prior.
I kept trying to get in touch with my parents to no avail. We had to go. We had to go find them and make sure they were ok. At this point, I was still not crazy worried. Why is it that your parents are immortal? You don’t think anything can really ever happen to them. As we began our drive from south Joplin toward Freeman hospital my heart began to sink. The further we went, the worse it got. It was unbelievable. The damage done was abominable. I felt like I was on the set of a Marvel movie and the Fantastic Four had just been through.
I remember us stopping and having to stay at Main and 32nd Street. They would not let us pass. They couldn’t let us pass. Sirens from emergency vehicles were the only sound. Chris and I sat in silence at the sight around us. There were no words. Pick up trucks with injured people in the back were allowed to make their way through the traffic. As the time raged on, the not knowing was the most awful part. My mind began churning. You know how it does. And then, from no where, there was this greatest peace. I knew every little thing was going to be ok. I didn’t get a peace that they were just fine. I received a peace that God was with my parents and would be with me no matter what had happened. That was my little miracle at that moment.
We waited what seemed to be forever and it became evident that we were not going to be able to make our way to their neighborhood. Our only option was to turn back. As were going back home, we received a text from my sister in Arkansas (how we got a text through is crazy). There was no cell service and texts were few and far between. She let me know that my sweet brother-in-law, Shane Munn, and Heath Mooneyham had rescued my parents. They had found them walking dazed and drenched down their street. Shane had been on their street because he was looking for his grandparents that lived in that area as well. Shane brought them over to my in-laws and we raced over to meet them.
I remember my mom climbing down from that truck with one flip flop and soaked from head to toe. That embrace will not ever be forgotten. We aren’t cry babies, but that day the tears were like a river.
My Mom had been alone in her home on Monroe Street near St. Paul’s Methodist Church that day. She had been doing work around the house. My dad had been golfing. The storm followed my dad all the way home along Schifferdecker Road. He remembers how eerie it was as the stoplights were not working and that gray green color in the sky loomed. My dad ran in the house and he and my mom took cover in the closet in the middle of the house. Immediately, they began to hear that train noise that everyone talks about. My dad recalls the sound of bricks being pulled and thrown from their house. In those moments it is interesting to hear about their responses. My mom kept saying, “Thank you, Jesus.” My dad prayed in tongues. It’s funny how the baptist left and the charismatic kicked in.
As they were praying, the clouds and dark lifted. The roaring stopped and it was calm. My mom remembers looking up and seeing blue skies through the top of their house that had no roof. They began to step out of the closet and realized it had only been the “eye” of the storm. The raging wind and sounds started once again as they scurried back into the closet that had no cover.
My mom told my dad at that moment that they weren’t going to make it. My dad believed her. He felt the floor beginning to be sucked up into the storm. They just held each other and hunkered down to stay as low as they could as the tornado roared on.
My mom was wrong. They did make it. God did save them. My dad said, “We had no control. But, we did have the presence of God.” He says that is true for all the difficult situations and circumstances we have in life. There are so many things we don’t have control of, but we can always be assured of Christ’s presence in the storm.
It breaks my heart for those and their families that didn’t make it. A woman died just a few doors down from the house of my parents. The people that lost their lives and received ghastly injuries in that area is tragic.
The only thing standing from my parents’ house was the closet where they sought refuge. Most everything they owned was shattered, taken away, or destroyed. The only thing I remember untouched were some lone cups and saucers that sat on a portion of their obliterated kitchen counter. It was as if the tornado had a personality and knew exactly where it wanted to strike.
It was going to have to be a new start for them. And, that was ok because they were alive. It gave a new lease on life. It helped us to appreciate our family and the small things. My dad doesn’t see my mom and himself as survivors. He thinks of themselves as victors.
Through the next hard days and weeks, I watched in amazement as our town came together and helped each other through the devastation.
We are known by the tornado of May 22, 2011. But, because of that horrific day, we are also known for our strength, courage and indestructible bond.
My dad stands by the closet where they sought refuge.