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"The sun was still yellowish during the storm."
That's how Will Worthington, a Fairfax, VA, native that has been living in Joplin for almost three years now, described what he saw from his garage as a tornado was tearing up downtown.
"I was standing in my garage taking pictures, just like 'Wow, look at the lightening'," Worthington said. "On my computer, there are five or six little clips I made and one of them, you hear this 'hey, hey, hey'. I turned around and my wife was life 'Eric just lost his roof'. I was like 'oh, crap', so I ran out and grabbed some tarps and she was like 'you're not leaving now!' Then she came back in two minutes later and she said 'Eric's in-laws ... their house is gone.'"
"I was like, its not even raining here."
The Worthingtons live less than three miles from where the tornado hit.
Hackett's Hot Wings sits, as they term it, "In the Heart of Joplin".
And that's a fair statement. Located between fifth and sixth streets on South Main Street, Hackett's has been voted as the best wings in Missouri by two different outlets in the past year, and while my experience with wings in Missouri is quite limited, I can tell you that I cannot remember having better wings. Ever. I guess that's what happens when you import "The Pride of Memphis".
Its business as usual at Hackett's.
You order your meal at the counter and then wait until one of the tables or boothes opens up. You better get there early, though. At 12:05 pm, the line at the counter gets 15 or 20 deep, the wait for a table not much shorter than trying to find a seat at a bar in New York's financial district during Happy Hour on a Friday.
There's no pushing and shoving for seats, either. The people at Hackett's are quite friendly. Its 'please' and 'thank you' and 'do you mind if I sit here?' You'd never guess that only 15 blocks away, a three minute drive even when you hit four red lights, a swath of Joplin almost a mile wide was completely destroyed.
"I didn't like it before," Worthington said of Joplin. "I'm from Northern Virginia, we have good restaurants and museums and clubs, and I had a hard time liking it. But, it is different. I think people are more friendly. A lot of that comes from outside, there's been tons of people volunteering."
"But I do [think its changed]. I feel like I have some sort of sense of ownership. I like it. ... I connect with it."
Matt McGee is a construction manager for the Habitat for Humanity. A Missouri native, he grew up in a small town just south of St. Louis and has spent the last eight years living in Springfield. After spending two years working at the Springfield Habitat, McGee made the move to the Joplin affiliate full-time about six months ago, but he's been helping in Joplin from the beginning. The tornado struck on a Sunday evening. He was in Joplin at 7am Monday morning.
"I was here the day after at seven o'clock in the morning. That was really cool, though, because it shows how resilient the people in Joplin were," McGee said. "Everyone in Joplin owns a chainsaw. After a week, if there was a piece of wood, it was cut, chopped, stacked out on the road. Don't get me wrong, it was still a mess, there were still power lines down and everything."
Initially, McGee didn't want to come back. The devastation, both structurally and to the families that lost loved ones, was just too much. No one could blame him, either. Being in the teeth of a disaster of that magnitude, finding yourself stuck in a place where the cleanup has started at the same that the rescue operations are being conducted to try and find the missing (17 people were pulled out of the rubble alive), is far from pleasant.
But Joplin, eventually, grew on McGee, so much so that he looked forward to getting back.
"I went [home] for Christmas, and I couldn't wait to get back down here," McGee said. "I couldn't wait to just get back down here to good people. There's trade-offs. We're missing places to eat and whatnot. There's just good people here."
"The hobos are polite and the rich people wear blue jeans."
Worthington was lucky. His house didn't sit in the path of the tornado, but Eric Polley's did.
"I'm from Kentucky, and we have tornadoes, but nothing like that," Polley said. He'd heard tornado sirens go off before, it wasn't a new phenomenon. Anyone that lives in Joplin during the spring hears them; they rarely go more than two or three months without hearing a siren go off. Hell, there was a tornado warning in the area four days before we got to Joplin. That familiarity is why Polley didn't initially react when he heard the siren going off the first time.
"I was the type that, you know, the first time the siren went off, I was like 'that's just another tornado siren'. After the second one went off, my wife and kids went in the house, but we was outside. I was like 'its just a tornado siren'. As I was out there, she went in the house and turned the TV on, and the power went out. And then my neighbor started screaming at me ,'Its behind your house!' By the time we got in the house, it was ..."
Its was right there?
"Yeah. It was pretty crazy. It seemed like we was in the bathtub for eight to ten minutes."
Polley's house may have been in the path of the tornado, but he and his family still made it through comparatively unscathed. They "only" had the roof ripped of the upper level of their house and their windows get blown out. More importantly, everyone was able to walk out of the house.
Rebuilding is that much easier when you are trying to get a roof over your wife and kid's heads, and it didn't take long for Polley to rebuild. The bigger issue was, simply, their "stuff". The day after the tornado, another storm rolled through Joplin, and while no tornadoes touched down, eight inches of rain were dumped on the town.
(At this point, these three gentlemen got rolling. I'm just going to put up the entire transcript. Its sobering.)
EP: "Everything inside the house was gone. We completely gutted it and started over."
WW: "It scared everybody to death. That was awful."
MM: "There were floods everywhere. The state troopers did a pretty good job shutting the area down."
WW: "The area of 20th to Connecticut, they had gates and fences up. There was a 9pm curfew for two weeks."
MM: "Driving down 26th street, I'll never forget, there were just 15 or 20 foot mounds of debris on the street. They brought heavy equipment in there. It was like a tunnel almost, it was insane. Everything was dirty. Insulation everywhere."
WW: "Attic insulation as far as you could see. In everything. Styrofoam. If your house got hurt, first people lost their windows. The next step was the roof was gone or there was a big hole in the roof. Almost single house lost a part of the roof. And everything in that goes. Christmas ornaments, Santa Clauses, christmas trees. Everything that was in everybody's attic was everywhere."
MM: "The trees, what was left of them, there was just trash in all of them."
WW: "Mattresses. Tons of mattresses in the trees."
MM: "You look at trees and this house would be three feet off its foundation, half the house is completely gone and there are still magnets on the refrigerator or clothes in the closets upstairs. Right there on Kentucky street, there was this guy named Dan, and we helped him get out and the guy next door, their stuff was still in the closets."
WW: "Danny Powell's house, the guy I was working for at the time, his house was amazing. There were three or four in the house, and they just stood in a little hallway and the whole house was gone. There was nothing left of it. In fact my work van was in his garage. It had been parked on the street and was picked up and slammed into the garage. The whole house was gone. I went there two days after they had picked through everything and I found two dry cleaned shirts that were still in the plastic hanging in the closet."
MM: "Over on 20th street, there's a curb and a log had pierced the concrete curb. Then there was a tin can top, I don't know where it came from, but it was stuck into a tree. And it wasn't bent or anything."
EP: "I had the end of an antenna stuck in a tree in my front yard."
MM: "The winds up on top of the hospital were over 400 mph. The hospital, I guess, there's one floor in there that used to be an insane asylum with heavy protected glass in the walls, and the hospital was destroyed except for this one section of the floor where everything was still on the desk. It was like a twilight zone. Nothing was touched in it. It was the weirdest thing ever."
Me: "What was it like trying to figure out where everybody was?"
MM: "It sucked. I came down that Monday night ... I didn't want to come back."
WW: "Cell phone service was super spotty. It took me almost an hour to get to Eric's house, and we live two and a half miles away."
EP: "It was just the debris, you couldn't get down the street."
WW: "Everyone was just walking around the streets in a daze. Shirtless, bleeding from the head. Zombies. Just walking in the street. Walking. No cars moving."
MM: "Two apartment complexes over, where Harmony Heights was, a younger couple, they weren't much older than us, the second level had been taken off. The girl was in the parking lot and she had a walmart bag, and the guy was up there sifting through stuff and she was like 'How much more stuff is there?' and he was like "I think that's about it". It was like holy crap, they had a walmart bag full of stuff. That's it."
"It changed me."
WW: "The people, we just rebuilt their house, their house just blew right over the top of them. They just crawled underneath and rode it out."
What struck me, more than anything about our time in Joplin, was the resiliency of the people in that town.
This disaster didn't break them. If anything, it brought them closer together. There are some strong-minded folks in that town. They had a running joke that they referred to as Joplin humor, the kind of jokes that, when made by them, were laughed off. But if they were made by outsiders like us would have been perceived as disrespectful. Worthington told me a story of how a friend of his had been woken up from a nap he was taking on a brown leather couch in his house. He then showed me a picture of the couch, which had a wooden pole sticking through it.
"Good thing he's not a deep sleeper."
They also told a story about the dents in the side of the utility trailer that Habitat uses to store their tools. The trailer was parked in Polley's yard next to a tree that was partially blown over. The tree's roots, when lifted out of the ground, picked the trailer up a good three feet off the ground. We all shared a laugh about how McGee's boss couldn't be mad about the damage to the trailer and the reaction to a phone call saying "Hey, do you think you can get a trailer out of a tree?"
These aren't folks that are going to ask for your help. They appreciate everything that is provided by outsider's -- even something as minor as a day's work and $268 from some guys that like college basketball too much -- and showed that appreciation by steering us in the direction of their town's best restaurant and watering hole.
They believe they can get through this and rebuild their town on their own. They don't think they need our help.
But they do.
There is so much work left to be done and so many people still living in dire situations. Families stuck in dilapidated houses that aren't big enough for the number of people living there. More than half of the people who lost their homes have left town. 46% of the 8,000 units (houses and apartments) that were destroyed were uninsured.
The beauty of what Habitat for Humanity is doing down there is that they aren't just giving people houses. These people still have to buy them, although for a greatly reduced price. They still have to pay a mortgage on the house, although it is interest free. They also have to put in 250 "sweat equity" hours, meaning that in order to be eligible for receiving help, they have to take part in building not only their own house, but the houses of other people that lost their homes in the storm. They also have to take 40 hours of life management classes, which teaches these people -- many of whom are first time home owners -- things like how to fix up the little things that go wrong in a house and how to manage their money so that they can afford to pay the $450 a month mortgage.
The way that Habitat prevents people from purchasing the house at a reduced price and flipping it for a profit is that their mortgages include a soft second mortgage, which ends up being the difference between the appraised value of the house and what they pay for it. That second mortgage is reduced by 10% every year, meaning that it will be gone when they live in the house for ten years.
Donating doesn't mean that you will be helping get houses built.
It means that you will be helping people get a home.
Here is the facebook page and the home page for Joplin's Habitat affiliate. You can donate here. If you can, you should.