It’s just a material item, Brenda Johnson acknowledged, but the discovery of her wedding ring half-buried in the dirt of her Oak Grove backyard brought comfort after a tornado’s destruction.
She and her husband had taken shelter in a basement bathroom protected by concrete walls. They had made the decision to move into the bathroom five seconds before the twister hit. Their home was destroyed, but “nothing in that bathroom moved.”
Two days later, as volunteers, family and friends raked the splintered rubble in the cul-de-sac on South Clinton Street, Johnson’s daughter and a friend found Johnson’s wedding ring.
“It’s a link to my life before the tornado,” Johnson said, pinching the ring, now back around her finger.
She’s been with her husband since she was a teenager, calling him her “high school sweetheart.” Now 59, Johnson said, “This is just another chapter.”
At a home nearby, volunteers found a wedding dress wrapped in plastic, lodged about 6 feet up in a tree.
Sydney Stark announced the discovery, thrusting the dress overhead and beaming as she walked it toward the homeowners’ mother.
The homeowners, Jennifer and Mark Swartz, were out to dinner with friends when the tornado hit. They weren’t able to access their neighborhood until 4 a.m. the next morning.
“We got here, and it was just gone. The carpets were lifted up off the floor,” Mark Swartz said. “It’s just God’s grace that we weren’t in the house, because we would’ve been taken with it if we’d have been here.”
Jennifer Swartz, who spent Wednesday running errands, said by phone that she hasn’t confirmed yet if the wedding dress is hers, but she is “so grateful that we hopefully found it.”
But other items and mementos are likely lost. Single photos have turned up, but the albums they belong to haven’t, Jennifer Swartz said. A coin collection that her parents started with her as a child is gone but for a single coin.
Swartz is also concerned about identity theft. Her family’s private paperwork is now strewn about the area.
“That’s kind of terrifying,” she said.
One man allegedly exploited the exposure of people’s belongings. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office arrested a person Wednesday after reports of looting in the 8300 block of Russell Road. The man was arrested on 12th Street.
“My understanding is he was taking from a home that was damaged in the tornado yesterday evening,” said Sgt. John Payne.
But the individual was an outlier, as hundreds from within the community and outside joined together to begin a difficult cleanup process.
Nicholas Kellogg and his 8-year-old son by the same name had driven in from Pittsville to help.
“I grew up around here,” said father Nicholas Kellogg. “It’s kind of surreal seeing it like this. We’re kind of in a parallel universe. ... I’m just grateful there were no fatalities.”
Despite the destruction, gratefulness was a common sentiment.
“God’s protective hand was on us,” Johnson said, looking at the small bathroom where she and her husband sheltered.
As for the cleanup, Johnson was thankful for the many helpful hands separating the pieces of her previous life into piles around where her home once stood.
“Families have come and strangers,” she said. “People have poured in to help.”
How to donate
Family, friends and volunteers are rallying around other communities hit hardest by the tornadoes. Other tornadoes also touched down in Lee’s Summit, Smithville, Carrollton and Leawood.
“Thanks for your tremendous support in the first 24 hours after the tornado hit,” the Community Services League wrote on its Facebook page.
Cities and nonprofits are requesting coordination before giving time and resources.
“Please don’t just show up,” said Smithville Police Chief Jason Lockridge. “Trying to manage that on the scene ... takes resources away from the victims.”
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver toured the damage Wednesday in Oak Grove, Odessa and Richmond.
The Community Services League, a social services nonprofit, is collecting food, clothing and other items for the victims in Oak Grove.
Among the most-sought items are nonperishable food items, personal hygiene items, bottled water by the case, school supplies, children’s clothing, adult professional clothing (the nonprofit wrote that it currently has an excess of casual used clothing), bedding and gift cards allowing residents to make personal purchases, such as medication.
The Central Jackson County Emergency Management Agency also posted to its Facebook page with information on how to help Oak Grove residents.
The agency listed three drop-off locations at which to donate:
▪ Independence Community Services League, 404 N. Noland Road from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
▪ The Blue Springs Community Services League, at 200 S.W. 10th St., is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for donations.
▪ The Grain Valley Community Services League, at 207 W. Walnut St., is open Wednesdays for donations.
Oak Grove Mayor Jeremy Martin told the emergency management agency that the response from other community members has been overwhelming.
But “at this time, volunteers are not needed,” Martin said. “We are humbled by the regional response, but there are areas of our community that are not safe for untrained volunteers.”
In Smithville, Lockridge said volunteers and volunteer organizations looking to help can email Lia Jennings at email@example.com. Those emailing are asked to include their name, contact information and available resources available, such as the number of volunteers and equipment.
One company, Duracell, is sending an emergency response vehicle to Smithville and Oak Grove to deliver aid to victims. The company posted Tuesday to its Twitter page that its team was “on the way with free batteries...”
Residents of Oak Grove can drop off tree and branch debris at the Eastern Jackson County Yard Waste Facility, at 37910 E. Pink Hill Road in Oak Grove. Residents are asked to bring their identification to use the facility.
Melissa Fears, a spokeswoman with Lee’s Summit, encouraged donating to the Red Cross.
On Lee’s Summit’s website, residents can find information on disposing downed tree limbs and branches. Brush can be taken to the Resource Recovery Park at 2101 S.E. Hamblen Road or can be picked up by trash haulers if the brush is bundled no longer than 4 feet and not bigger than 4 inches in diameter.
Other ways to help tornado victims:
▪ Donate to the Red Cross on its website to support Missouri tornado and flood relief. You can also call 1-800-Red-Cross (733-27677) to make a donation. Text “Redcross” to 90999 to donate $10 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief, which benefits tornado, hurricane, flood and other disaster victims. Charges will appear on your wireless bill.
▪ Donate to the Missouri Conference Disaster Response, which aids in long-term recovery efforts in Missouri.
▪ For information on volunteering and donating opportunities, call United Way 2-1-1 Missouri at 800-427-4626 or by visiting 211 Missouri’s website.
The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency has tips to help people who are rebuilding to avoid scams and fraud.
“Criminals, known as ‘storm chasers,’ often head to an area hard-hit by a disaster,” the agency’s website says. “These criminals go door-to-door offering quick fixes to consumers who appear to be in urgent need of repairs or supplies.”
The Star’s Matt Campbell contributed to this report.
Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @maxlondberg