Dispatch from Joplin: An unwelcome homecoming

Monday, May 23, 2011 | 12:23 p.m. CDT; updated 1:14 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 23, 2011

Tornadoes are never quite as exciting as the one that carried Dorothy away, because you don’t wake up in the wonderful world of Oz – you wake up amidst total devastation and heartbreak.

Twenty minutes before the tornado tore through my hometown of Joplin, my mom sent me a picture of baseball-sized hail in her back yard. I shrugged it off and went back to my TV show in Columbia – let me know when it’s basketball-sized and I’ll be impressed – until my phone started ringing with concerned friends letting me know they were praying for my family and friends back at home.

Without cable and the Weather Channel at my fingertips, I turned to Twitter – and was horrified to find that for the first time (and I hope the last), Joplin was trending.

The photos and videos streaming in made my stomach churn. St. John’s Hospital falling apart. The high school flattened. Cars overturned. Homes smashed.

I frantically made phone calls, but cell service in Joplin was shot. It wasn’t until 6:47 p.m., about 47 minutes after the tornado hit, that my mom finally got through to me.

Our house was intact – we live on the opposite end of town – but she had driven into the wreckage, and she was sobbing as she tried to describe the scene to me: cars wrapped around trees; people carrying what little they could salvage from their homes; children sitting on curbs, taking it all in.

I knew there wasn’t much I could do. I have no medical training, no experience with this sort of disaster. But when your hometown is leveled – when strangers are lost, and when your best friend calls to tell you that her home is gone – what do you do?

You pack a bag with anything you can think of that might be of some use – towels and Pop-Tarts, pajamas, empty photo albums – and you go home.

Thirty miles outside of Joplin, I started meeting ambulances transporting people to area hospitals because we’d run out of room. At my exit, there were fluorescent signs that read, “Incident Ahead.”

When I finally crawled into bed at 1 a.m., the death toll was at 24. When I woke up this morning, it was 89.

I woke to the sound of helicopters, and Al Roker on my TV standing in front of what’s left of St. John’s. Another storm started to roll in, and as Al nervously said, it looked just like the one that pre-empted Sunday's tornado. There was nothing to indicate that another was on the way – but we were all thinking it:
“Please, God, not again.”

Now that the storm is finally clearing, I’m about to venture out. I don’t think anything can prepare me for the heartbreaking reality that’s just on the other side of town. Here, in my living room, I feel guilty in saying that everything is just fine.

But I have friends and family across town, picking up the pieces of their lives and trying to put them back together. Truth be told, they’re all friends and family. There are no strangers in a time like this.

Eliza Smith of Joplin, a student at the MU School of Journalism, was editor of her high school newspaper and wrote for The Jasper County Citizen in high school. She's working this summer as a reporter at the Columbia Missourian. Follow her on Twitter @ElizaMizzou.

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