11 Lessons the Joplin Tornadoes Taught Our Family

We “woke up” to the need to get prepared two years ago after an F-5 tornado obliterated our hometown, Joplin, MO. What we learned in the wake of that disaster has been unbelievable, miraculous, heart-wrenching, but ultimately, extremely useful. While we were extremely lucky to miss the storm by about half a mile, we were all deeply affected on an emotional level. I know it’s true whenever the sky turns gray, as it has this week.  Here are some valuable lessons we took away from May 22, 2011.

  • Angels are among us.  If you haven’t heard the stories, check out an overview here.  It’s the only way to explain why we lost 161 instead of thousands that day.  And it may be the most important lesson.
  • People really do take care of each other. I know it isn’t something advocated in many prepping circles, and I still haven’t decided how our family would handle an unforeseeable event, but I couldn’t shake this story: My coworker’s elderly mother couldn’t make it down the stairs, so she sat in her living room praying. Her neighbor heard the “freight train” sound, dashed across the street, and scooped her out of her wheelchair. He hit the third basement step when the roof went.  They both (miraculously!) survived. And that’s just one of a thousand stories that gets me choked up.
  • Buy the insurance. Another coworker was talked in to renter’ insurance literally ten days before the tornado. She was recently divorced and had moved into a small apartment about a week before our employer’s insurance associates came to buy us lunch. They had a contract signed within 48 hours.  Ten days later, she lost her apartment, contents, and car. Best $70 she ever spent.
  • We were too dependent upon electricity. We were without power for nearly two weeks, which meant no stove or microwave. No water from the electric pump, so no bathing, washing clothes or dishes, and no flushing toilets. We stayed with my parents on the other side of town, who still had all their creature comforts. We now have a backup plan in place.
  • Children take their cues from us. They are also remarkably resilient. Our then 6 and 4 year-old children had been through tornado drills before. We huddled in the basement closet making shadow puppets and playing games on the laptop. We made a concerted effort to use calm voices and soft faces even though we knew it was going to be ugly. A relative had called from 60 miles away to urge us into the basement, saying she just saw the shell of the hospital on TV. The storm ran west to east for 6 miles, and we were on the east end. The power was already out, but the sun was still shining and we hadn’t been paying attention to the forecast. That single phone call was our only real warning—and it was as serious as it gets. Within minutes the sky was black and tree limbs were flying past the basement window. The kids never panicked; it was like a sleepover in the daytime.
  • Separation causes anxiety. The day after the tornado, my husband and I returned to check on our property and gather some more clothes for the family. Torrential rain flooded many streets, including the one to my parents’ house, and we were unable to return. We spent the night in our dark house worrying about our children (who were, by the way, being shamelessly spoiled and didn’t miss us at all, despite the ominous-looking sky and further tornado warnings). If the carnage had happened during the day when we were all in separate places, the anxiety would’ve been multiplied exponentially. Which leads to our next big lesson:
  • We MUST have alternate means of communication. Phone lines were nonexistent in the immediate aftermath, and even cell phone calls wouldn’t go through. Some text messages did, and that’s how we checked on our friends and relatives, but in an EMP or other widespread attack, communication lines could be completely wiped out. A CB or ham radio is a good initial back-up plan, as are walkie-talkies in a Faraday cage. We were lucky to have Zimmer radio group—which operates several stations in our area—serve as a live broadcast connection. They didn’t turn a profit for two weeks because they refused to run music or commercials. Instead, they repeated pleas for those missing a loved one to call in and ask for help locating people. Sometimes, a neighbor listening would call and verify that the person mentioned had been located and would leave a phone number with the station. Talk about compassion and corporate responsibility!
  • You may not be home when it hits the fan. So many people were in their cars headed home from graduation, or out to dinner, or visiting friends in the hospital. Even if their homes survived, getting to their supplies could mean hiking through rubble in their Sunday heels. So now I carry a 72-hour kit and hiking shoes in my car, plus supplies for the kids. It can make finding trunk space for the groceries a bit more tricky, but I’m cool with that. I can’t control whether a tornado throws my car into a building, obliterating my backup plan, but I’m still gonna have one. Speaking of which…
  • Always have a backup plan. It’s as important to communities as it is to individuals. Yes, St. John’s hospital was destroyed, but Freeman still had backup generators (and an overflowing waiting room).  Home Depot was gone, but Lowe’s still operated throughout the ongoing rebuilding process. Wal-Mart and the grocery store were gone, but Sam’s let people shop without memberships for several weeks. And so it is with our own preps: two other ways to cook and stay warm; two ways to collect and purify water, etc.
  • Opportunists can be deterred by weapons. Neighbors took shifts on their blocks sitting up with rifles in their laps at night to deter looters. No altercations were reported. Coincidence? I doubt it. And my police friends admitted—after the fact—that they were grateful people had taken charge of caring for their own, because many of them were also dealing with loss and couldn’t effectively patrol an area that wide. Good thing our state government continues to guarantee that right.
  • Private industry is more efficient than government. I can’t even describe the immediate and overwhelming response of our churches and their associated ministries. Even the Red Cross wanted to know how College Heights Christian Church got their food and clothing services set up so quickly and so well-organized. I only mention that one because it’s across the street from the college, which was the largest immediate shelter and medical station, and survivors were heavily dependent upon it for a while. Even the atmosphere was more of a block party or backyard cookout than a disaster relief station. It certainly beat the FEMA camp photos I saw after Katrina and Sandy.

We aren’t perfectly prepared for every scenario, but witnessing the devastation in Joplin has forced us to remove our heads from the sand, reach out to our neighbors, and prepare for a time when help might not be as quick to arrive.  And this little community—the “buckle” on the Bible Belt—is still praising Him in the storm.

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