On Sunday night, when one of the most ferocious tornados in American history descended on Joplin, Missouri. Randy Turner wrapped himself in an old blanket. He pulled a pillow over his head. He lay on the bedroom floor in his Joplin apartment and prayed.
But the murderous twister stayed clear of Turner’s neighborhood. Instead, the storm, with its 200-mile-per-hour winds, killed at least 124 people, injured 750, and turned stretches of Joplin into a wasteland reminiscent of a Cormac MacCarthy novel.
Officials now say the storm was a rare “multi-vortex” tornado, with minor tornados orbiting the main funnel. It is classified as an EF-5 storm, the most powerful tornado of all.
For all its power, it was fickle. While Walmart and Home Depot shoppers were buried in rubble about a mile away, Randy Turner still had phone service, water, and only a brief electrical-power blackout.
Battling mixed feelings of survivor guilt and heartfelt gratitude for his good luck, Turner, a bespectacled former newspaper reporter who became a local middle-school teacher eight years ago, vowed to make himself “useful.” He ramped up his blog, updating conditions in Joplin, and began checking on his students’ welfare via Facebook and Twitter. About 60 percent of the students in the Joplin school district were displaced in the storm.
“It’s very hard sitting in a comfortable place that didn’t get hit,” he said late Tuesday when I met up with him in Joplin.
Rescue workers had already combed through the town of about 49,000 people. Two days after the storm, they focused on finding survivors in the wreckage of the big box stores. There’s no official tally, but as many as 1,500 people have been reported missing, according to the city’s Facebook page. Dozens call into Joplin’s radio stations looking for friends and relatives.
What’s more, authorities have yet to release the names of the dead.
Which means that Turner doesn’t know if any of his students were killed in the storm.
He’s worried, for instance, about an unaccounted-for student named Isaiah Whitehead, who reportedly lived across the street from the Walmart in a multi-story brick apartment complex apartment with much of the top story blown off.
We visited the complex. We couldn’t find Whitehead.
But we did meet Terri Bass, the sister of Chris Lucas, a 27-year-old former Navy submariner and father of four who lived in this same complex and worked as manager of a nearby Pizza Hut.
When the storm hit, Lucas herded his employees into a sturdy cooler. Then he and another manager huddled into a more flimsy cooler, Bass told us.
Lucas was sucked into the storm. Rescue workers recovered his body several hundred yards from the cooler.
He died a hero, his sister said, risking his life for others. “He was a really good brother,” Bass said.
On 20th Street, one of the hardest hit residential areas, volunteers on all-terrain vehicles offered bottled water, sandwiches, and rides to dazed homeowners who were allowed back in the neighborhoods to collect belongings.
Most homes were reduced to hodgepodge hillocks of clothes, toys, furniture, lumber, ductwork, roofing, and brick atop concrete slabs. Homeowners sifted through the ruins, trying to beat severe thunder storms predicted for Tuesday night.
Jodie Neal and his wife, Christina, had no basement in their home. They survived the fierce wind by rolling up in a green blanket, planting themselves in the hallway, and covering their two children with their bodies. Their house broke up around them. Jodie downplayed the red welts and scabs on his back, caused by flying shards of debris. “Some people died,” he said. “This is nothing.”
The Neals discovered their healthy cat in the wreckage, as well as Christina’s prescription medicine, photos of a dead sister, and a box of Pampers.
Dozens of volunteers with gas-powered chain saws carved giant oak trees that had fallen, crushing cars and homes. A few trees still stood, but their snapped limbs were stripped of leaves. A twisted shovel dangled from one tall oak. An orange-and-black Halloween costume dangled from another wrecked tree. Freshly planted American flags waved from the construction wreckage throughout the disaster zone.
The school where Turner taught, Joplin East Middle School, was once surrounded by suburban homes. Now it looked as if the neighborhood had been blitzed with bombs. One man complained that looters rifled through what was left of his home and stolen his kids’ video games.
Joplin school officials estimated the storm damage to schools at about $100 million. Four schools were totaled. Others, including Joplin East Middle School, were severely damaged. The storm destroyed the middle school’s prized gym and auditorium, and Turner’s classroom was reportedly wrecked, although he couldn’t enter the building. He worried most about a civil-rights books library he’d started, and prize student essays he’d collected over the years.
He views President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Joplin this Sunday as a sign of hope, although not everyone in Joplin is likely to agree with him. Joplin is a predominantly conservative Republican town that has not cottoned much to the government that it must now rely on.
But after a killer twister, everyone in Joplin seems to agree, government has to assert itself to maintain order, On Tuesday night, officials imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on the disaster area to keep out looters. Authorities also feared that the belt of storms that dropped tornados on Kansas and Oklahoma Tuesday night, killing seven, might also wreak havoc on Joplin. Tornado sirens shrieked briefly, but a tornado warning was eventually lifted.
The twister affected everybody in Joplin, Turner’s come to believe, even those who weren’t in the storm’s path. “We all,” he said, “just want to be of some use.”
Correction: This headline wrongly stated a new tornado struck Joplin.