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Despite hardships, Joplin ‘refusers’ vow not to leave

“We’re not going to leave,” says Marlene Uyttebroeck of Joplin, Mo. She and husband Phillip Uyttebroeck have no power and holes in the roof, but they plan to stay put.
“We’re not going to leave,” says Marlene Uyttebroeck of Joplin, Mo. She and husband Phillip Uyttebroeck have no power and holes in the roof, but they plan to stay put. KEITH MYERS | Kansas City Star

JOPLIN, Mo. | The tornado took windows from his house and part of his roof, but Jessy Ford wants it known it’s not taking him.

He’s 88 and bought the place for $2,500 when he and Barbara got married in 1948.

“I’m not leaving,” he said Wednesday on his front porch as he took a break from cleanup. “This is our home. Where would we go?”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people in this torn-apart city say the same thing. No roof, no windows, no lights, no matter — they’re staying put.

These “refusers” live in neighborhoods on the fringe of the area flattened by Sunday’s EF5 tornado. Theirs is a land of blue tarps, plywood, chainsaws and rugged resolve.

They could go to a shelter, but they worry about looters, they worry about rain, they worry about their things. They seemingly believe they can keep their home if they are there to hold the walls.

As one woman said, “If we leave, we’ll have nothing to come back to.”

Kevan Cole and his wife, Tonya, have three children, ages 14, 13 and 11. They lost windows and lots of shingles.

“I’ve got leaking up top and flooding in the basement,” Cole said Wednesday. “We’re flushing the toilet with buckets of rainwater. No shortage of that. But we’re OK. We don’t need power.

“Plus, we don’t want to take up shelter space from someone who needs it more than us.”

One woman, although determined to stay, said she does feel isolated.

“Without electricity, we don’t always know what’s going on,” she said.

But there is a beauty on these ugly streets. Neighbors share. They help each other. They cook on grills because there is no electricity, and they invite others to share a bite.

Cars and trucks cruise debris-strewn streets offering cold water and sandwiches to those trying to dig out. Volunteers help with whatever they can: clearing downed trees, spreading tarps, nailing plywood to cover openings where windows blew out.

“Some of them have come from hundreds of miles to get here,” said Marlene Uyttebroeck, 65. “How can I leave if they’re going to do that?”

Right before the tornado hit, she went to close the back door because the wind was blowing hard.

As she stood at the rear of the house, the floor rose. A tree next to the back porch had been uprooted by the tornado, falling onto a neighbor’s house and pushing up the rear of the Uyttebroeck house.

She toppled back into the laundry room, landing against the dryer. Her husband yanked her up and they both scrambled into a closet.

Phil Uyttebroeck, 66, didn’t consider leaving that night or ever. He can fix things and he knows where to start.

“Get down off there,” he told his wife as she stood Wednesday on the raised floor. “I don’t want that ceiling coming down on your head.”

If the Uyttebroecks needed a sign they did right in staying, it landed in their yard. They found it the morning after the tornado: an old handmade quilt with every square having a family member’s name.

“Wanda May Daugherty, Feb. 1942,” said one.

The quilt now drapes a trash bin in front of their house.

“It blew here from somewhere and somebody’s going to want it back,” Phil said. “It would be in the trash if we had left.”

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