Dispatches from Joplin, Part 1

On May 22, 2011 an EF5 tornado struck my hometown of Joplin, Missouri. At the time I was working at a startup in Bend, OR but my folks (and a lot of friends) were – and are – still in Joplin.

My folks live very close to the hospital that took a direct hit and was featured in most of the press coverage. As soon as I heard about the extent of the damage and couldn’t get in touch with my folks I immediately left Oregon driving to Joplin.

The next three posts are emails I sent back to my team in Oregon telling of my experience.

Subject: Where’s Mike?
From: Mike Sisk
Date: May 26, 2011
To: engineering

It’s been a hectic past few days.

This all started for me on Sunday around 4PM when got a call from a friend in Joplin asking if my parents were OK. She said a tornado had just gone through town and there was a lot of damage.

I tried calling my folks but just got a busy signal on both their home phone and their cell phone.

I don’t normally worry much about these things since Joplin gets tornados all the time and my folks house — the house I grew up in — is a very sturdy house made of foot-thick limestone blocks, has a basement, and is located just one block away from a siren.

The local and national news were no help immediately after the storm so I turned to Twitter and Facebook. What I was hearing on there worried me and after seeing the video the weather channel was broadcasting of the damage to the St. John’s Hospital I was very worried. My folks house is not very far from there.

I tuned in to the Joplin emergency services radio through an Internet radio scanner and what I was hearing was very worrisome — not only the location but the scope. This was obviously a major disaster.

I started packing my Jeep and planning a trip back not know if I would need to evacuate my parents or what the situation is. I filled it with tools, emergency supplies, and camping equipment just in case.

Around this time, about three hours after the tornado went though town, I got a call from the sheriff office saying my parents were fine but the house was severely damaged. I told him I would be there ASAP and hung up — they were making a lot of calls and couldn’t take time for questions.

Still not knowing the exact situation but knowing my parents were safe I finalized my packing and was on the road heading away from Portland on I-84 around 9PM. I drove straight though the night getting updates on the situation from friends on Twitter, Facebook, and SMS. By now the scope of the disaster had gotten the attention of the national media and I started getting updates on the radio and web.

I made it to North Platte, NE on Monday before I needed to stop to sleep. I got back on the road Tuesday and had to take an alternate route through Kansas to avoid some severe thunderstorms.

I finally got to my folks house in Joplin Tuesday night just before the 9PM curfew went into effect.

My folks were fine and the house had surprisingly little damage. The power was out due to a tree falling on the power lead and yanking the line off the house. A lot of debris was around the house and a camper shell had landed in the backyard on the fence. The chimneys on the house were missing some bricks but no roof damage or broken glass.

Shortly after I arrived a severe storm went though. A tornado was spotted to the west of town so the sirens went off. It never touched down and later the sirens went off again when winds over 75-mph were measured and with all the loose debris around it was considered dangerous.

I got up the next morning around 6AM and walked around the neighborhood.

My folks got lucky. A few houses around them were damaged by falling trees, but one block further south the serious damage started and two blocks away everything was razed to the ground. One house collapsed as I was getting ready to take a picture of it; I wish I had the iPhone on video mode. The air smelled of natural gas and you could still faintly hear fire detectors going off in the ruble of some homes. Cars were smashed and overturned. A semi truck was upside down in the remains of another.

An nearby elementary school was reduced to an empty shell. Tetherball poles in the playground embedded in asphalt were bent parallel to the ground. An electrical substation next to the school was totally destroyed and its large multi-ton transformers scattered about.

Back at my folks house my first order of business was fixing their 5000-watt generator. It was last used several years ago during an ice storm, but they couldn’t get it started. Some helpful neighbors and tried to fix it by removing the carburetor, but that didn’t help and it now leaked gas. I took it apart and it was obviously reassembled incorrectly. They had broken a complex rubber gasket that sealed the float bowl and put the float in wrong. I got it back together correctly and with some starting fluid was able to get the generator fired up and running.

So we now had power. We had water and water pressure, but there’s a boil warning in effect due to many broken water mains. Luckily the city water pumping plant is just several blocks away and was mostly undamaged so we had water pressure.

Next order of business; getting a TV running. Cable TV in town is down, so my folks have no phone, TV, or Internet service. And TV is now all digital so their old normal TVs can’t pick up over the air signals. Luckily they had ordered one of those free HDTV tuners awhile back and I was able to get that hooked up to their TV.

Next: Coffee. My dad needs his coffee. With the electricity and gas out he didn’t have a way to boil water. I brought along my JetBoil backpacking stove and it heats several cups of water to a boil in just a minute or so. Coffee achieved.

With power, TV, and coffee my folks are now comfortable, so I could now help out some friends and their families.

Kim is a dental hygienist and her brand new office is about 5 blocks from my folk’s house. She hadn’t been out since the storm so I picked her up at her house in the undamaged north part of town and went back to my parents and we walked over to her office. It was totally destroyed. A tennis shoe was embedded in an exterior wall. A king-size mattress from somewhere was inside the waiting room. A chair from the waiting room had found it’s way into Kim’s treatment room and had a 2×4 speared through the back rest.

Afterwards we drove around town for awhile looking over the places we both know so well since we grew up here. It’s surreal. The damage is just insane. There’s a quarter-mile-wide path from one side of town to the other that is stripped bare to the ground. Trees are either totally uprooted or stripped bare — even the bark is gone. Damaged cars are everywhere. I saw a guy driving a Porsche Boxster with no windshield and every body panel bashed.

At the site of one bank there was nothing left but the concrete bank vault. The sea-food restaurant I worked at in high school was reduced to one wall.

I’ll be amazed of the death count doesn’t increase dramatically — there’s just so much damage.

A lot of the deaths occurred at the Home Depot and the Wal-Mart. People were inside seeking shelter from the storm and when the roof was pulled away the tilt-up poured concrete walls fell over crushing people underneath.

The hospital that is getting a lot of the attention in the media is something else to see in person. It looks like it was bombed. The devastation around it is unreal. It honestly brings to mind the photos of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing.

After driving around awhile we went back by Kim’s office to search for something she forgot to look for. We pulled into the parking lot and there was a minivan with no license plates and a U-Haul trailer attached. We could hear someone up in the attic of the office and yelled at them but they didn’t respond back.

About this time a police patrol was driving by so I flagged him down and told him someone we didn’t know was in the building. He said he’d check it out and had a National Guard soldier with him. They confronted the guys and called for backup. Soon we had about 20 cops in the lot from a dozen different agencies. Turns out the guys in the attic were looters from out of state pulling the copper wiring out.

The police cuffed and hauled them to jail. While this was going one I talked to the cop I flagged down. He said he spent 2 years in Iraq and the devastation he’s seen in Joplin is worse than anything he ever saw over there.

But at the same time the amount of generosity and helpfulness is impressive. Before I got in town someone went from house to house in my parent’s neighborhood asking if they wanted anything to eat — they had hamburgers and hot dogs for anyone. And someone did the same with bottled water.

At Kim’s parents house I was just getting ready to fire up my chain saw when a truck with three kids came up and said they were volunteers and asked if we needed any help cutting up the downed trees. Sure, I said, and they got to work and quickly reduced the big trees to manageable logs and stacked them near the road.

There’s aid and supply stations everywhere in town and we have law enforcement people from all over the midwest helping out. People are really pulling together here as a community.

Ok, I’ve gone on long enough. I still have a lot of work to do today and still need to get my folks house cleaned up from debris. And I need to get on the roof for a though inspection. I also need to file an insurance claim for them and get the FEMA paperwork filled out.

I’m doing OK, but it’s a lot of work and emotionally draining with so much destruction around.

I’ve put some video of the destruction on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/msisk6