The Finger of God
One hundred sixty one.
That’s how many people died in Joplin, Missouri as a result of just a few minutes on May 22, 2011.
The 2011 Joplin tornado was the seventh single deadliest such storm in the United States to date. Now, I’ve seen tornado damage, of course. One came through the town I was living in when I was nineteen, hitting my friend’s house head on. Another hit my parents house five years ago. Granted, they were both F1 storms. I drove through Atkins, AR two days after a deadly tornado struck there. The ripped up pavement on I-40 and the church that was no more, were images I never forget. Now, every time I pass that spot, I habitually hold up the hand sign for “I Love You”.
In 2008, a small tornado touched down just mere feet from my front porch. It was the only time I’ve ever seen a twister. Damage could be seen just from my driveway.
We entered town by way of East 7th from Highway 249. The first thing I noticed was what looked like a large garage sale. However, it wasn’t a garage sale in the church parking lot off to my left. It was a donation store for the victims. Behind these booths was a long line of tents. This is what some people were temporarily calling ‘home’. Further down 7th, we saw a few trees with broken tops. This was nothing compared to what we saw once we hung that left onto Highway 71/S Range Line Rd.
The Target and BooksAMillion on the corner were perfectly intact. Kitty-corner from there was a temporary At&t store in the parking lot of the Baptist Church. Things looked relatively minor for a few blocks. The real devastation, however, came upon us suddenly. My step-aunt told me to ‘be prepared’ for what I would see. There was absolutely nothing that could prepare me for seeing absolutely…. nothing. I don’t mean that there was nothing to see and that it was unchanged. I mean.. nothing was there.
The only way I can describe it is to have you remember if you’ve ever visited old desert town in New Mexico or Arizona. You see a few sparse homes and no trees. In Arizona and New Mexico, you can see buildings that are miles away. Missouri as a whole has plenty of trees, and so typically, the only way you can see far away is if you’re in the middle of a field. This is no longer the case in Southwest Joplin. At one point, I could see over a quarter mile away across barren foundations. I could see hills that just four months ago could not be detected at ground level.
What homes were left were marked with X’s and dates: 5-23, 5-25, 5-26 to indicate that they had been searched by rescue and recovery teams. At one point, we stopped in a parking lot to get our bearings, not realizing that it had once belonged to a grocery store (only Google Maps street view told us this). To us, it was just a large block of blacktop in the middle of a field. On this blacktop was a single-wide trailer with “Pharmacy” written on it. Outside of this trailer was a guard. It was the only half-step to rebuilding we could see from that vantage with the exception of one home that appeared to be under some repair up ahead.
Much has been cleared away since May 22 by bulldozers, at least what wasn’t cleared away by nature. The cars that were seen turned upside down and thrown atop of each other in this video have since been removed. Electricity has been restored to the area, but there are few buildings there to enjoy the luxury. All the poles for the lines have obviously been recently replaced. Traffic lights are working again… in some areas.
My husband drove while I just kept taking photos. At one point, I took a photo of what I thought was a trailer home and thought it ironic that it survived the devastation for the most part. Upon close inspection via Google Maps Street view, I realized how wrong I was. Not knowing how everything looked before, though the impact was great, didn’t give me the shakes that I got once we went through the street view of each photo I took. Some photos took over half an hour to piece together with the google image to determine if that really was where we were when I snapped the shot. Twice I broke down into tears putting this together as the depth of what happened started sinking in.
While writing this, I found a couple of links that help give some perspective of what happened on that Sunday night. This KML file, though gives you some idea, doesn’t do what happened enough justice. (Move your mouse back and forth over the image to reveal all of the before and after)
My favorite before and after shot is here. It’s a 360-degree perspective of the intersection of 20th and Main, near Cunningham Park and Mercy St. John’s hospital (where the video above was filmed). You have to flip one of the images 180-degrees to get the same perspective on both images before starting.
Thank God it was a Sunday night though. Had it been mid-afternoon on a weekday, the impact would have been greater. We took two photos: one of what was left of a bank and another of a preschool. They were right next door to each other. Luckily, they were unoccupied at that moment. Academy Sports was most likely emptying out at the time of the tornado, as they typically close earlier on Sundays. Several businesses are generally closed on Sundays, which I’m sure lessened the impact. The fatalities could have been a lot worse on any other day.
One thing I noticed when we first got into town was spray painted on the side of a house. The sign said “God Bless Joplin”. The same was written on another home as we exited back onto I-44. “God Bless Joplin”. Ineed. God bless Joplin.
Below are the images George and I shot, side by side with the GoogleMaps street view of the same spot. The Google Maps image was taken approximately four years ago, so some intersections and home had seen renovation since the original photos were taken. It still gives you a vantage. If you have any doubts as to whether the two images were taken from the same spot, George and I spent hours comparing minute details to be sure that indeed, we were in that spot when the photo was taken.