A town destroyed, a community united

Zita Biro

Ten years ago, on May 22, 2011, a natural disaster affected almost everyone’s life in Joplin. Although a tornado in this area is something that people prepare for, it was much bigger than they expected.   

The Sunday of the devastating tornado thousands of people were in town for the Joplin High School graduation ceremony.   

Ed James, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, had the day off, so he was preparing for graduation with his family, decorating the house with graduating seniors from their church.  

“But for some reason, because it was such a big class, they moved this ceremony to Missouri Southern. It was a huge luck, because later the tornado hit the High School, and it would take all those people lives,” said James.   

 When James heard the tornado alarm sound throughout town they did not expect any serious danger. James and his family also heard an announcement on the radio that a huge tornado was coming to Joplin, and it would go through seventh street where their church was. In that moment, they started to prepare water and blankets and whatever they may need later.   

“While preparing quickly, we realized that there are many cars on the streets, and they are about to drive through on seventh street. So, myself and two other men ran out into the street with flashlights, and we started to stop the cars, and took the drivers and other people to the basement of the church to keep them safe – otherwise they would drive into death,” said James.  

The hospital began to call every nurse, doctor, the authorities, and the military in an atempt to prepare for the amount of injuries that would come in after the tornado hit.   

“My hospital, the biggest hospital in Joplin, was hit directly by the tornado and it destroyed almost the whole building, and those who were in that side of the hospital were either dead or seriously injured. The doctors and nurses tried to help for those who was alive to escape and save them,” said James.  

After they reported what happened to other hospitals in the area, citizens started to show up in the city with pick-up trucks to rescue the injured on the streets and take them to the hospital.   

“There were several doctors and surgeons who worked with me, and they have been in the army, but they said they have never in their life seen anything like Joplin,” said James.   

James, who went to work around 6 p.m. that day, did not leave the hospital for 36 hours. The nurses and doctors could barely sleep for even a few minutes because they were called into a surgery or to help somebody.   

“We began to setup small hospitals inside, no longer was there a lobby. We also used every chair to take care of the injured. There were almost 800 people just in the lobby area, where you were normally sitting waiting for the doctor,” said James.  

 There were even people who were not affected by the tornado opening up their homes to help those who no longer had a house. Other people from the community brought sandwiches and other items to help in any way they could.   

“So many people came together. We had doctors who flew down from Kansas City or Saint Louis and we had nurses from other cities help, because there were just not enough nurses and doctors at that moment,” said James.  

The tornado destroyed thousands of houses, streets with apartments, shops and other buildings. What was once the city of Joplin was unrecognizable in the debris. James’ niece, Alissa Sims, was one of the victims to lose their house on that day.  

“I was at home, watching a movie and my two older sons who were playing with their toys, and my newborn was sleeping. The electricity was flicking on and off and then I heard that huge loud roar, so I screamed to my two other kids to get into the closet,” said Sims.  

She ran to the cradle for her baby, then went to the closet to lay herself over her children to protect them. Right after she shut the door, the tornado began to roar louder, like a train was coming.   

“As soon as the tornado hit, I could hear furniture flying around the house and all the window glasses breaking off. The closet’s roof was ripped off, and it started raining and things were falling down on top of me, and in that moment, I started to pray to Jesus with my older children to save us,” said Sims.  

She thought there was no way to survive, but then the storm started to calm down a little. Her husband called her from work. She told him that they were okay, but all he heard was screaming and crying, and he thought some of his family had died.   

“I was able to speak with mom on the phone after that, and she said your dad is on his way to get you all – I did not want to stay in the house because it was dangerous, so we tried to go outside of the collapsed house. I opened the closet, and we did not have a whole wall, all the food was out from my fridge, but there were parts that were untouched, which was weird,” said Sims. “I told the kids to go outside, but there was glass everywhere on the floor and we did not have shoes on, so we just walked through that, and I truly believe that it was a miracle that we did not have any scrape on our body.”  

Sims and her children went to their back porch, and their neighbors were also outside. When they saw the baby, the neighbors ran there to help the family, to be able to at least give them shoes.   

Sims’ dad and brother, who went there to help, had to park blocks away because the roads were completely flooded with trees and parts of houses.  

“After a few weeks this happened and I was able to tell this to other people, that I was in a closet, laying down on top of my children to protect them, and my middle son said that ‘and there was a man on top of you who got you to be safe.’ I believe that was our angel with us, who really protected us,” said Sims.  

Later they were able to go back to the house to collect a few items, but almost everything was destroyed. They had to start over with absolutely nothing.   

“We were able to find a rental, but it was very difficult, because many houses were destroyed, and all those people were looking for homes. There were just not enough houses at that time,” said Sims. 

Sims grew up in Joplin. She described it as a place that was always a comfortable, nice and a clean hometown for her. After the tornado, it looked like a warzone.   

“There were buildings that you saw your entire life and the next day it was just not there, they were gone. You lost your own town. But Joplin was so powerful because everybody came together to help,” said Sims. 

 There was not a division in that moment on how to rebuild the town, people just knew that they had a job to do, and they would come out better at the end.   

“They did a good job, because you would not be able to tell now what happened ten years ago. It has completely changed; it is a whole new town now,” said Sims. 

There were people from all over the country, and other countries, who were donating to Sims and others who had a loss in the disaster. They helped to rebuild the houses to restore what all those people had lost.   

 Ten years ago, many people had a terrible experience, but it also showed how strong and cohesive they can be. There were real heroes that day who saved hundreds of lives, helped them to start over, and gave them back their faith in humanity.