At 5:41 p.m. on May 22, 2011, a devastating EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo. Part of a larger tornado outbreak, the vortex reached a width in excess of threefourths of a mile during its seven-mile path through the southern part of the city. The National Weather Service estimated the storm’s overall path to be 14 miles long. This was the third tornado to strike Joplin since May 1971.
Many of ATSU’s own experienced first-hand the horrors of the deadliest tornado to hit the United States in 60 years. Here are their stories, in their own words.
Fourth-year ATSU-KCOM student Katie Davenport was on rotation in Joplin during the tornado. In her journal excerpt she tells of that fateful day, which she lived out alongside fellow student and boyfriend Michael Kabonic. Both students spent the hours immediately following the tornado at Freeman Health System, which was not directly damaged. Many patients from St. John’s Mercy Hospital were transferred to Freeman after it was obliterated in the storm. Watch a video interview with Davenport and Kubonic on iconnect at iconnect.atsu.edu/?p=4135.
After we heard the first tornado alarm we turned on the television and watched the local news for updates. The news station warned of softball size hail and the possibility of a rain-wrapped tornado. Michael and I ran back and forth between the front and back doors to see from which direction the storm was approaching. The sky we saw out our back door was eerily familiar. It was the deepest grayblue color, which reminded us of the Kirksville sky witnessed in 2009. We decided to prepare for the worst.
Then the second tornado alarm went off. Michael quickly grabbed a flashlight and radio and threw blankets down in the bathtub. Just as the lights began to flicker we were settling into the tub. When they went out completely, Michael lay on top of me for protection. We heard pelting rain and an unusual rumbling getting louder and louder until it was suddenly deafening. We heard cracking, snapping, shattering, and crashing sounds – sounds of our house being pulled apart. Water began dripping on us. Insulation began falling on us.
Despite my eyes being clenched shut, I could sense it was somehow lighter in the bathroom. At one point, even with Michael completely covering me, I felt pulled upward as if there was suction around us. It was a sensation that thankfully lasted only a moment. When the sounds finally subsided we found ourselves wet and covered in insulation. We could see sky through the new holes in the roof. A portion of the ceiling directly above us had broken apart and was lodged between the shower curtain and the wall, miraculously sheltering us. Insulation, glass, dirt, leaves, and wood were scattered everywhere.
After ensuring our neighbors were safe and accounted for and parents and friends had been contacted, we both agreed without hesitance that we had to get to the Freeman hospital. Both our vehicles were trapped under building structures and therefore unusable. In drenched clothes and shoes, we hailed a ride from a stranger driving by.
Once we arrived at Freeman, victims of the tornado and hospital personnel flooded in through every entrance. It was chaos. After checking in with a charge nurse and receiving general location assignments, we acquired dry scrubs and frantically changed in one of the nursing stations. We had no stethoscopes, trauma shears, pens, or medical equipment of any sort to utilize other than the flashlight Michael had grabbed before the tornado struck.
We started performing rapid assessments of patients, assisting residents, nurses, and physicians as needed, and obtaining basic patient identification information such as name, date of birth, allergies, major medical conditions, and major injury sites. After 10 minutes of working side-by-side with Michael, the initial shock was overshadowed by the need to act. With an unspoken understanding Michael and I parted ways.
Over the course of the eight hours spent at Freeman following the tornado, I witnessed more traumatic injuries than I hope to ever again. I contributed to an unsuccessful code necessarily performed on the emergency department hallway floor. I cleaned wounds, sutured, and at times held limbs together. I encountered patients I felt I could do nothing more for than hold their hands. And at times, that is exactly what I did.
At around 2 a.m., emotion was starting to break through, and I was getting shaky. Michael and I decided to turn our attention to our current status: we had no home to return to, no transportation, and no communication with family since the tornado struck. We needed a plan for ourselves. With our overwhelming new reality beginning to dawn on us, it was such a relief to have the insistent help of other students, physicians, and nurses who offered their home to us. Even after caring for hundreds of patients that night at Freeman, our medical community wanted to continue to care for us.
Carmen, the wife of Lance Borup, D.O., ’01, was driving her son home from his tuba performance at the high school graduation on May 22. Tornado sirens and a text message from Weather.com warned her of the approaching storm. At a presentation at ATSU-KCOM’s Day of Compassion event, Carmen tearfully recalled the events that forever changed her life.
As we were driving the wall cloud appeared, and we were immediately pelted with rain and hail. I couldn’t control the car or see where our turn was, so my son grabbed the steering wheel to help me. We found our turn and pulled off into the grass. My son said he thought we should say a prayer, so we prayed, and when we opened our eyes we were surrounded by the tornado. We were inside it and could see sheet metal, building materials, sparks flying, and trees slamming around us. I thought we were going to die.
Suddenly, everything just stopped – and not one thing had touched my car. For a while we just sat there. There was a space large enough to drive my car though, and we drove home.
I’ve hardly slept a night since because when I close my eyes I can see everything in perfect detail.
Dr. Borup, a diagnostic radiologist at St. John’s Mercy Hospital, was at home when the tornado struck. The Borup residence, just one mile from the tornado’s center, was thankfully unscathed.
Dr. Borup responded to a request for all physicians to report to the hospital. Until 3 a.m. Monday morning, he read X-rays and CTR scans at Freeman. With so many patients and a stressed system, Dr. Borup wrote notes on small pieces of paper and pinned them to patients in order to match them to their X-rays.
After responding to a call from the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, Maria L. Evans, M.D., signed up through the United Way to volunteer in the relief efforts. She spent three days with Catholic Charities at their distribution center located at McAuley High School in downtown Joplin, delivering supplies by the truckload to the epicenter of damage.
Dr. Evans is an associate professor of pathology at ATSU-KCOM. This blog excerpt tells the story of her non-medical volunteer expedition. Read more of Dr. Evans’ personal account in the June 2011 archive on her blog at kirkepiscatoid.blogspot.com.
I was surprised at how reticent many of the clients were to simply take all of what they needed or even admit they needed it. I vividly remember a very haggard-looking young woman with a baby in her arms and a little boy who looked to be 3 or so. I was helping find the little boy a pair of shoes and offered her a second pair. “Can he HAVE two?” I assured her, “Certainly. It’s going to rain. Here, he will need these little boots, too.”
I was assisting a woman in the grocery room and noticed she kept shaking her head when I offered her canned goods. She had three small children in tow. I asked her if she could cook or had a microwave where she was living. She did. I said, “Ma’am, these babies need some good vegetables, not just cereal and granola bars.” Then, in a split second I had a flash thought. “Ma’am, do you need a can opener?” It was then that tears came down her eyes and she started sniffling.
I smiled and said, “Well, we can certainly fix that, too!” I got her a key-drive can opener and some canned goods. As I gave her the sack, I put both of my hands around hers, and said, “Please – ask for what you need. Don’t ever be ashamed to ask. I am grateful you are alive today to be here and touch my life the way you have today. God bless you.” It was then I received the first of many hugs I would be exchanging throughout the day.
We first entered that buffer zone of mostly intact, but damaged houses, but with almost all the tall trees sheared off at the 15-20-foot level. It was as if Mother Nature had gone through with a giant hedge trimmer. In the buffer zone, house after house had an “X” spray painted on the side, signifying it had been cleared of occupants. Many people had spray painted their addresses on the side, as most of the street signs were gone and neighborhoods had become unrecognizable, even to longstanding locals.
Other messages had been spray painted by owners to let rescue crews know the status of the occupants: “All safe,” “Pets OK,” “Gas off, lights, phone, and sewer OK,” and my personal favorite – “For sale: split level home – split in 1/2 and 1/2 leveled!”
Then starkly, almost like crossing a street into another neighborhood, we were in “the field” – a mile wide and six miles long. What was most striking to me were the trees – devoid of foliage, tops broken off, and nothing but shredded piles of debris. I have seen plenty of tornado damage in my life, but never such a seemingly never-ending swath of it. St. John’s Mercy Hospital loomed over it, like a monument, a shrine to the devastating powerlessness all human endeavor is to the forces of nature.
Many lives were tragically lost in the tornado, and the property damage was catastrophic. The city was left merely a shell of its former self. Downed power lines, twisted cell towers, and unrecognizable debris scattered the city’s landscape. Residents were unable find their way around as street signs, landmarks, and city blocks were completely gone.
Despite the shock and seemingly insurmountable rebuilding that loomed before them, Joplin immediately rallied together. After months of clean-up, the community has started to rebuild.
Countless grassroots recovery efforts have sprung into action, such as “Rooting for Joplin,” a program initiated by Missouri Future Business Leaders of America, whose goal is to plant thousands of trees in the city before next spring (www.rootingforjoplin.org).
Nationally and internationally, attention is turned to telling Joplin’s story. All eyes are on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which is building seven new homes in seven days for seven Joplin families. The Joplin project will be featured on its 200th episode and building began Oct. 19. All the homes are being built on Connor Street, just southwest of St. John’s hospital.
“This is an amazing town that is determined to overcome this tragedy and press forward into the future,” said third-year ATSUKCOM student Ashley Trantham, who also was present during the tornado.
“I think the biggest fear is that people will forget since it’s not the ‘latest tragedy,’” Carmen said (Dr. Borup’s wife). “There is still a lot of clean-up and work to be done. We still need volunteers.”
“There is still much work to be done, and these people who have been affected will need not just money, not just stuff, but the ministry of presence, for a long time,” said Dr. Evans (the ATSU-KCOM pathology associate professor). “If you can find the time to volunteer, please do. As time passes, and the memory of the disaster itself fades, the need will still remain.”