Special Reports

Joplin tornado adds meaning to a wedding

The engagement portrait of Jarod Stice and Jessica Bennett (with their dog Baloo) lay in the ruins of their home in Joplin the morning of May 23, a day after it was destroyed by the tornado that devastated the town. The couple were to be married July 23.
The engagement portrait of Jarod Stice and Jessica Bennett (with their dog Baloo) lay in the ruins of their home in Joplin the morning of May 23, a day after it was destroyed by the tornado that devastated the town. The couple were to be married July 23.

Today, the day Jessica will marry Jarod, family and friends will see a slide show of their lives.

Jessica Bennett as a kindergartner on Halloween, dressed as an Indian. Jarod Stice wearing an apron and baking cookies with his mom as a preschooler. Then the two of them together in their early days of dating in 2008.

And as the slide show music changes to a Rascal Flatts song about weathering hard times and being strong together, photos will emerge of Jarod and Jessica standing in front of what was their brick home, a centerpiece of their Joplin neighborhood.

All around them is devastation: crumbled bricks and splintered wood and piles of trash that once were treasures.

The Joplin tornado took so much from the young couple: The house where they had planned to start their married life. Their cars, new furniture and clothes. The letter Jarod gave Jessica on the day he proposed.

But today, the day they had been planning for many months before the May 22 storm, they’ll think of how much more this wedding means now, a symbol not just for them but their family and friends. Together, people persevere and move on.

“We’re kind of different people now,” said Jarod, 28, who with Jessica rode out the storm in the basement with two pieces of plywood and a tarp protecting them. “I don’t think you realize all you have until it’s all taken away. That’s one thing the tornado taught us.”

“Things” don’t mean much anymore, they say.

Take Jessica. The 22-year-old said she was the type, before the storm, who had a million pairs of jeans and shoes.

“I loved those things,” she said. “But I was OK to throw those things away.”

The night of the tornado, after the couple realized they and their Weimaraner, Baloo, were OK, Jarod told Jessica: “Things are never going to be the same here.”

He then went to help rescue neighbors still buried in the rubble.

Jessica welcomed neighbors into their basement, giving them water and towels to press on their wounds. A mom and her three kids came in, along with a man with a severed ear and a woman with a nail embedded in her arm.

The next morning, about two dozen family members and friends showed up at their destroyed home at 2420 S. Joplin Ave. to help the couple comb through the debris to find anything they could. Though Jarod and Jessica, still weary from the night before and all that they had seen, weren’t desperate to salvage any one thing, their friends were.

“Every time I found something he was looking for, I was like, ‘This is good,’ ” said Allen Arthur of Kansas City, a longtime friend of Jarod. “I felt like I was doing something. Something to help.”

The main items on the list were essential ingredients for today’s wedding. The eight bridesmaid dresses. Jessica’s white strapless dress. Her wedding ring.

One by one, they found them all.

Four bridesmaid dresses were scattered on the second floor. Others were in a neighbor’s yard.

Standing amid the rubble the day after the tornado, a plastic garbage bag cloaking him like a raincoat, Jarod joked that he’d told Jessica she should modify the pink and purple color scheme to add brown. Mud brown.

Searchers found the wedding dress lying on a second floor wall that had fallen down. Chunks of wood pierced the bag it was in, but there wasn’t one rip in the dress. Though the cleaners told Jessica that there’s a small stain they couldn’t get out, at the top of the gown, the bride said she can’t even see it.

And the ring? Friends and family dug around and finally found it buried under some bricks.

One of the only things missing for today’s wedding is the “something borrowed.” Searchers could never find the pearl necklace that Jarod’s grandmother gave Jessica to wear.

“But that’s OK,” said Jarod. “They were fake.”

Since the storm, the two have sold the land their old house sat on to the neighbors. For now, Jarod and Jessica — who both graduated from Pittsburg State University in May and are looking for jobs — will live in a small home in Parsons, Kan. And though they could move away and start fresh somewhere else, they want to stay near Joplin, near family and friends.

They will eventually build a new place on land they have purchased between Joplin and Pittsburg, Kan.

“I’ve thought about what could have happened if they hadn’t gotten out alive,” said Greg Stice, Jarod’s dad. “ If you can survive that storm, I think your marriage is going to be a lasting marriage.”

Jarod and Jessica agree. All the little stuff, the everyday stresses of jobs and bills, that will be nothing.

“The only thing that matters, that we still have, is each other,” Jarod said.

And at 6 p.m., inside the Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg, Jarod will slip the ring — the one plucked from a pile of bricks — on Jessica’s finger.