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Owners reclaim pieces of life from before the Joplin tornado

By LAURA BAUER
The Kansas City Star

Every day there’s a new plea.

A woman looking for the flag from her father’s funeral. Someone who hopes to find her dog’s ashes. A niece looking for photos of her aunt and uncle’s wedding.

“Sadly our uncle was killed in the tornado,” the niece wrote. “Thank you and God bless.”

In the two weeks since an EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., killing at least 138 people and injuring more than 900, survivors are slowly piecing their lives back together.

For many, the first step toward healing — or at least realizing things are going to be OK — is to find something they thought they had lost forever.

Like a Bible, a gift from mom and dad years ago. A 5-year-old’s favorite stuffed dog. A random photo of a husband and wife at a family celebration. A baseball card photo of a little leaguer.

For people who lost so much, these small possessions can be everything.

“It’s funny the things you think are important,” said Laurel Bradley, whose family lost their home to the storm. “It’s not the monetary value, but the sentimental value.”

Even strangers get that. Within a day or two of the tornado, people wanting to reconnect survivors with their belongings created lost-and-found pages on Facebook.

Miles from the devastation, they used these pages as a way to pitch in, to ease a little pain.

Angela Walters lives in Pryor, Okla., about 100 miles from a friend in Joplin. When she couldn’t get word of his whereabouts, she needed an avenue for her nervous energy.

“We’d made our donations, collected clothing,” said Walters, 33, a genealogist and researcher who created “Lost Photos of Joplin.” “I felt I hadn’t done enough. I wanted to do more.”

And now, she and others, like Megan Van Natta, 22, of Willard, Mo. — who created “Joplin Tornado Debris. Lost and Found” — can spend hours each day trying to reunite people with possessions tossed miles away and photos that fluttered to the ground several counties over.

Van Natta’s parents found photos on their land in Walnut Grove, about 70 miles northeast of Joplin. And her boyfriend’s parents found someone’s baseball card.

How easy it would be, she thought then, to post these on Facebook and try to find the owners.

“I thought maybe they could get back one picture that could mean the world to them,” said Van Natta, who now has dozens of photos posted on the page and has already matched several. “It just amazes me how quick people are to respond and help in any way they can.”

An open Bible

Randy Brown headed to the area near Joplin’s Home Depot and Walmart about 24 hours after the storm. His son was helping with search and rescue, and Brown wanted to see the damage for himself.

There on the ground, not far from the Caterpillar dealership and near a crushed vehicle, lay a leather-bound Bible. It was open, its pages wrinkled and puffy from rain. Inside, parents had written a message to their son.

“It is my greatest wish you grow and prosper spiritually. Your parents pray for you and love you with all of our hearts …”

The Bible was open to First Kings, Chapter 6 — a Scripture about Solomon building a new temple. Brown says it was as if someone had placed the book there on the ground.

He and wife, Annette, knew they had to get the Bible back to the son who lost it. So Annette posted a photo on the Facebook page Van Natta set up.

Someone who knew of the Morris family saw it. Before long, Sam Morris got word that a couple had found his Bible.

His parents gave him this Bible several years ago. He often kept it in his Honda Civic, tucked next to the passenger seat.

After the first tornado siren sounded, Morris, who was working at Home Depot, parked his car under shelter at work to protect it from hail. The tornado ripped off the Civic’s roof and dropped the car about a third of a mile away.

When his brother found the crumpled car, all Sam’s belongings — fishing rods and tackle, iPod and Bible — were gone.

“I just figured I’d never see my Bible again,” said Morris, 24. “A lot other people would find it and think, ‘Oh, well, someone lost their Bible, let’s just throw it away.’ ”

Not the Browns. Last week, Morris went to their home to pick up his Bible and share his story of survival. How he and about 30 others ran to the training room in the back of the store just before the tornado hit. How a co-worker, Dean Wells, left the training room to let more people into the store. How Wells and others died in the tornado. And how Morris helped pull people from beneath the rubble.

The Browns, he said, “were willing to reach out and encourage me. It just kind of shows their tender-heartedness.”

Family photos

Laurel Bradley’s husband, Mike, knew she was afraid of storms.

So when he knew they would move into his family home just east of Joplin — one story, built on a slab — he had a storm shelter built.

On May 22, she and Mike and her teenage son and his friend went to the home’s new underground shelter. They escaped injury, but the house, and almost everything in it, was gone.

Once she knew all her family members were safe, she wanted to find what she could. Especially anything that once belonged to her mother, who died 10 years ago.

“First you’re kind of in a daze,” Bradley said. “Then you think, ‘I wonder about this. What about that? Oh, I hope I can find that.’ ”

Sifting through the rubble, she found a ceramic rabbit that once was her mother’s. A floral pincushion her mother had made years ago, with her mother’s pins still in it. A few drawings her kids made when they were little.

“It just makes your heart kind of jump and you say, ‘I found this,’ ” she said. “And you want to tell everyone, ‘Look what I found.’ ”

She was able to salvage several photos because a wall fell on top of an area where a few albums were, but she knew she had lost many more. She’s the picture keeper of the family.

Then one day her sister’s husband got a text from someone who’d seen a picture of Laurel and husband Mike on “Joplin Tornado Debris. Lost and Found.”

A short time after that, as Laurel’s sister Leslie Thomas was scrolling down the same Facebook page, she saw another photo she recognized, one of Laurel’s 20-year-old son when he was 3.

“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, here’s another piece of our history that someone was kind enough to pick up and save,” Thomas said. “And give back to us.”

Bradley plans to keep the two photos, and any others that may be returned, separate from the other things she has left. They’re her treasures now. Her reminder.

“I’ll let everyone know these are ones that survived the tornado and who found them and where,” Bradley said. “They’re just another little part of your history and what you’ve gone through.”

‘Is this Waggle?’

The morning after the tornado, Amy Jump stood in the front yard of what was her family’s home on South Joplin Avenue. She and husband Larry were trying to salvage what they could.

For 10 years they had lived in the house that now was a pile of splintered wood and crumbled walls.

“My son asked me to find Waggle,” she said, tears in her eyes.

She knew it was just a toy, a brown and white stuffed dog. And the important thing was that she and Larry and the three kids were all safe, having ridden out the storm inside the home. Her neighbors were safe, too.

But Waggle was like part of the family, her son Caden’s favorite childhood toy.

For hours they searched for the stuffed dog. As people helped go through the rubble, they would hold up stuffed animal after stuffed animal.

“Is this Waggle?”

Last week, once the Jump family had settled into a rental home in Joplin — already making plans to rebuild their home on Joplin Avenue — Amy called with good news.

“We found Waggle,” she said. “We washed him and he’s good as new.”

The next thing on the family’s list was to find bricks from their old home. When they build a new one, they want to make a walkway with parts of the one that blew away that Sunday evening.

Finding Freya

For days after the tornado, Desiree Rodgers, 24, sat in a hospital bed. Whenever she could, when doctors weren’t examining her and nurses weren’t tending to her injured kidneys and legs, she searched online for her black and white cat.

“Have you seen Freya?” she would write. She posted photos of the cat on Facebook. “I was trying to get people to go to Joplin to find her.”

Rodgers got Freya in January as part birthday gift/part comfort. She’d just had a miscarriage and the cat helped get her through, she said.

About an hour before the tornado slammed into Joplin, Desiree and her fiancé, Matthew Morris, left Freya at their apartment while they went to the grocery store. When the sirens sounded, employees herded the couple and other customers to the produce cooler.

When the roof collapsed, part of it pinned Desiree — seven weeks pregnant — for two hours. Later at the hospital, as she was covered in blood, medical workers told her she was having a miscarriage.

“I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe I had lost the baby,” Desiree said.

But the next day, when she still didn’t have all the feeling back in her legs, she went to another hospital in Parsons, Kan., where her parents live. Doctors discovered the bleeding was coming from her kidneys and that her baby was OK.

From then on, she focused on Freya.

A cousin went back to Joplin and registered the missing cat with the Humane Society. Relatives went to the apartment, which was destroyed, and couldn’t find the cat.

But a few days ago, Rodgers’ fiance brought Freya to her. The Humane Society had found her, and the couple’s phone number was on her collar.

Finding Freya is just another blessing, Rodgers said.

“Myself and my fiance, we’re alive,” she said. “And now I have my cat and my baby. We’ll make it. Everything else will be OK.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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