There is something special about the serenity of Midwestern living. It offers a quality of life that is simply unlike any other. Unfortunately, it is also home to Tornado Alley, an area that encompasses portions of eight states, including Missouri, that offers a high risk for severe weather. As a result, people living in the affected area must be prepared for those storms. And so, it becomes a way of life. People watch the weather and listen for the warning sirens that announce approaching storms. That’s what people do. But the residents of Joplin, Mo., could not have anticipated what would happen on May 22. A massive storm plunged the city of 50,000 into a natural disaster area of epic proportions. That’s what EF-5 tornados do.
The storm churned its way into the record books, as it is now being called the deadliest single tornado in the United States since 1950. It was an unimaginable tragedy that was felt not only in the city limits of Joplin, but far beyond. Cleveland Chiropractic College (CCC) student Jessica Tallman, lived in the city while completing her undergraduate degree at Missouri Southern State University. While there, she met the man who would become her husband, and they share a direct link to one of the more enduring sights of the weather’s carnage.
Among the many images seen around the globe, is a picture of the church where Tallman was married. The building was all but leveled, but a large cross at the entrance remained intact. That cross now stands above ruins, but amazingly, the roof endured the tornado’s wrath. Perhaps reminding the survivors that faith in a brighter tomorrow can still be found, even if many personal items cannot.
Moved by that image and others, Tallman knew she had to return to the place that held so many of her memories. She arrived three days after the tornado to find the wounded city still reeling. She was overwhelmed by what she found. Winds of more than 200 mph, eviscerated 30 percent of the city taking homes, businesses and more than 140 lives. Much of the Joplin she remembered had been pummeled by the fierce winds. What was not destroyed, was simply gone in some cases.
“The pictures don’t do it justice,” Tallman said. “The devastation is so unbelievable you don’t believe it when you see it with your own eyes. Once you get to the heart of the damage, there is destruction everywhere the eye can see. It’s almost as if you are standing in the middle of a Kansas plain.”
After recovering from the initial shock of their surroundings, Tallman and her husband, Jamie,
began to unload the truckload of supplies donated by the CCC community and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue. Tallman worked in conjunction with the administration at the college to gather relief supplies, which were then combined with items collected by the restaurant.
The Community Service Coordinating Committee (CSCC) at the college donated 10 cases of water to the effort, and fellow Clevelanders also donated items that helped to fill an entire pickup truck in just three days. Before the week concluded, a second load of supplies collected at CCC was taken to a local retail outlet for transportation to Joplin.
Jalonna Bowie is director of Student Services at the college and a member of the CSCC. She said the committee felt they should do whatever it could for those suffering through such terrible circumstances.
“We were saddened by the images of the destruction we saw on the news and we decided right away that the college had to do something for the people affected by this catastrophe.” Bowie said. “We formulated a plan to collect items that would assist the residents of Joplin as they begin to regroup and rebuild.”
Although Tallman delivered supplies, she didn’t stop there. She and her husband then signed up for an on-site work crew. Their primary task was unloading donated clothing from semi trucks, but they eventually made their way into the heart of the damage. There, the grim reality became apparent, as they witnessed a wasteland of collapsed structures and demolished vehicles that were marked with spray paint. The markings indicated which areas had been searched for bodies. But among the sobering reminders of death, Tallman said there were also uplifting stories of those who survived.
“We helped a woman who hid under her bed during the tornado,” Tallman said. “The walls of her bedroom were ripped apart and one collapsed on top of her hiding place. The top mattress from her bed was flung across the yard into a pitch-fork like tree and it remained there as a symbol of the power of the storm.”
Tallman said the woman came through it without injuries, but her home and her entire neighborhood were ravaged by the tornado. In spite of it all, the woman was thankful for the assistance she received as she attempted to recover what she could. Perhaps it could be considered a story of good fortune, as she lost most of her possessions, but her life was spared.
As for Cleveland alums practicing in Joplin, all survived, but unfortunately not all came through unscathed. The college’s records show at least 15 graduates serving the area, and, of those, four reported that their offices were completely leveled. Despite the effects of the storm, there have been reports of at least two Cleveland graduates, Drs. Joel Wilstead ’09 and Herb Waring ’07, that were treating displaced residents and rescue workers at Memorial Hall. The site is where many residents have sought help since the storm. The office of one doctor was spared, while the other’s office had windows blown out. When their community needed them the most, Clevelanders were at the ready, in the midst of the difficult circumstances.
Another Cleveland graduate, Dr. Steven Skaggs ’94, has seen both the good and the bad that is displayed during tumultuous times. He lost his practice, but his family and his staff were unhurt in the ordeal. He believes his time spent serving others is now being reciprocated in his hour of need.
“To see everything I have worked on for the past 16 years stand in a pile of ruins is simply devastating,” Skaggs said. “Words cannot begin to convey the loss. Then you start getting the phone calls from patients wanting to know that my family and staff are safe. The offers of help flood in, and somehow you know that caring for others will come back to you.”
Unfortunately the bad also is revealed in times such as these, as Skaggs heard a story from a patient about what he called “parasites” trying to capitalize on those in need by offering assistance then attempting to charge outlandish fees. But those unsavory stories are the exception and not the rule in Joplin, and Skaggs refuses to be weighed down by any negative elements. In spite of everything, he remains upbeat because much was lost, but much remains.
“We are simply lucky,” Skaggs said. “My family, staff and my home are safe and intact. All that was lost is replaceable. Our attitude is that we will rebuild. Like the Phoenix that rose from the ashes, we, too, shall rise again. Bigger and better than ever before.”
And Skaggs will be a vital part of that recovery as he is serving on an exploratory committee for Gov. Jay Nixon that will attempt to stimulate economic recovery in Joplin. Undoubtedly, there will be a multitude of procedural and bureaucratic hurdles to clear along the way, but Skaggs is undaunted. He remains focused on a future for Joplin that is brighter than other communities savaged by tornados.
“As businesses we are doing what we can as fast as we can,” Skaggs said. “I refuse to let my city lose part of the population like Greensburg, Kan.”
The storm carved a rut through the heart of Joplin and its people. But, spirits are recovering, and American flags are now flying throughout the city. More impressively, there are some who are already taking steps to start anew. Whether personally touched by tragedy or affected only by association, the tornado left its mark on every citizen in some way. A natural disaster of this magnitude is a life-altering experience that changes people forever.
Although history may not recall each individual story of loss in Joplin, all will remember the tragic day with reverence because of what happened there. It was a storm for the ages, and much will need to be done before the city can be rebuilt. It will require a massive effort by local, state and federal authorities to make it happen, but it can be done. It will be done. And slowly, this city that finds itself in so many pieces, will be made whole again.