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Contemplating lives touched — but blessedly, not crushed — by the Joplin tornado

By MIKE DeARMOND
The Kansas City Star

Just before 5:30 on the afternoon of May 22, the telephone rang at the home of Mary DeArmond in the 2800 block of Grand Avenue in Joplin, Mo.

A friend, knowing my mother has macular degeneration and might not see the darkness eating up the sky as a churning wind raised a growing howl, telephoned a warning.

“Mary! It’s coming. Get in the closet.”

And my mother did the only thing she could.

She picked up her purse, which she refers to as a pocket book, slid the door to her bedroom closet open, went in and pulled a comforter over her head as she sat under the awning of her hanging clothes.

My mother’s house — the house I lived in until the early fall of 1968, when I went away to college at the University of Missouri — is like many houses in south Joplin. It is a one-story ranch.

It has no basement, in part, because that part of Joplin is honeycombed by old mine shafts. We knew that because every so often someone would wake up and discover a portion of their yard had collapsed into one. I explain that as a way of saying Mary had nowhere else to go but the closet on an interior wall.

And then it came. The tornado. Or the three of them. Later I heard someone say they thought it was one huge tornado flanked by two smaller ones, the smaller ones rotating in opposite directions and driving debris at 200 mph.

“I heard the roar begin,” my mom said. “Then glass breaking.”

When I later asked her whether she was scared, Mom said she remembered wondering whether she was going to blow away. She said she kept listening for the train, the sound so many associate with a tornado.

“I didn’t hear the train,” she said. “I just heard a roar, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

We measure the sound of that roar in the lives lost. A wonderful book published by The Star says 160 people died.

We know now that starting at 5:41 p.m. out at 32nd and Black Cat Road — near an area where I once shot tin cans with a .22-caliber rifle — the storm touched down nearly a mile wide and stayed down for 6 miles.

It tore apart my high school and hit my junior high school.

It destroyed so much, and yet not as much as was feared. My town is coming together again in so many ways. I’ve heard from friends I had not talked to since college, since high school graduation.

We talk about Joplin. And not about the good ol’ days, but about now and about tomorrow.

Part of that rebirth will be memorialized at 5:30 p.m. today when the Missouri men’s basketball team I normally cover plays Missouri Southern State in an exhibition game that will benefit the continuing relief efforts.

I was in College Station, Texas, on Saturday, covering the Mizzou football game at Texas A&M. I cannot make it back in time to get to Joplin today.

But my mom, like many of you who won’t actually be at the game, will be sitting in front of her television set for the game, which will be nationally televised on ESPNU.

And I will be thinking about Joplin. And Mary. And probably crying in joy that she is still with me and able to laugh at herself, and me.

It is a blessing. Because while my mom lost some beautiful old trees, while her house had to be re-sided and the windows and the front door replaced, a mere two blocks north was sheer devastation.

Houses blown apart. Blown away. Trees stripped bare of all leaves and but a few limbs. The church across the street was picked up and part of it dumped into the front entrance of Joplin Senior High School.

When I first arrived in Joplin and tried to drive a few blocks to the old home of best friend Jack Glover, I couldn’t find the street. Landmarks, and not just street signs, were gone. Driving through the south central part of Joplin in the wake of that storm was like driving through a city I had never visited.

My sister, Anne, will perhaps forgive me for recalling the way she tried to tell me of what had happened on the day of the tornado.

My wife, Barb, and I were in Alaska, on a cruise ship. Our cell phones didn’t work out on the water. And when I’m on vacation, I don’t watch much TV.

At breakfast the next morning, on May 23, I heard the word “Joplin” in the dialect of my Ozark mountain region. And I struck up a conversation with the folk who said they were from Fort Smith, Ark.

I said, “I went to high school in Joplin.”

And one of the women said, “Have you heard what happened?”

I rushed back to my cabin. I turned on the television and saw the pictures, heard the alternately hushed and harried tones of the news people.

I picked up the ship-to-shore telephone — which cost $5 a minute — and dialed my mother’s telephone number.

No one answered.

I called my sister Anne’s home in Nevada, Mo. And before she could even recognize who was calling, I asked, “Where is Mom?!”

She was, by that time, with my sister.

A neighbor had immediately checked on Mary to make sure she was fine. He turned the gas off to the house, saying he saw fires down the block. He went house to house pounding on other doors.

Near midnight on the 22nd, the children of another friend of my mom’s — Mary DeArmond could make friends with a tree — had walked more than 20 blocks through the dark and debris to make sure she was OK.

Some of my mom’s friends, perhaps a lot of them, called my sister in Nevada. Anne and her husband, Tom, drove down to pick up Mom and took her back to Nevada.

And by the time I talked to my daughter, Cortney, in Chicago, and my son, Gabe (who runs PowerMizzou.com and who is in Joplin with my Mom today), in Columbia, all was well enough that we could laugh about Gabe’s initial reaction.

Moments after hearing of the devastation, and unable to reach his grandmother on the telephone, Gabe called Cortney and said: “I’m getting in the car and driving to Joplin to find Mary.”

I was still in for a little shock when, after the ship docked in Alaska, I listened to the voice mail message my sister had left on my cell phone.

“Joplin has been hit by a tornado. Can’t find mom!”

My sister has a doctorate in economics. Like my mom, a former college professor. But I’m glad I got that message only after talking to my mom and knowing she was alive.

“Of all things,” Anne said later, “why did I say that?”

I know why. Because life so suddenly disordered comes out raw. It comes out precious. It comes rushing out of you so fast that you know you are going to lose it and then are overjoyed that you have not.

We go on. Those of us who remained so ultimately unscathed, as my family, cry now and then for those who lost a mother, a father, a son or daughter, themselves.

We appreciate beyond words those who have helped and continue to help restore Joplin.

I called my mom just now. And she made me laugh.

“Next time I’m going to take a whistle,” she said. “I bought a dozen whistles and gave them to friends. That way people can find you.

“And next time I’m going to take a bottle of water. But I’ll always take my pocketbook. It has my money and my (credit) card.”

It feels good to laugh. To be able to laugh. Again.


Missouri vs. Missouri Southern
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. today

WHERE: Leggett & Platt Athletic Center, Joplin, Mo.

TV: ESPNU

•Coach Frank Haith’s first game with the Tigers is the One State, One Spirit Classic, a benefit in which ticket sales go to tornado relief efforts.

To reach Mike DeArmond, call 816-234-4353 or send email to mdearmond@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/sptwri.

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