Joplin tornado survivors pick up the pieces, wonder what's next

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 5:32 p.m. CDT; updated 1:26 p.m. CDT, Saturday, May 28, 2011
Three onlookers walk down a street toward Range Line Road in Joplin on Wednesday. The EF5 tornado that struck the town Sunday is being called the nation's deadliest single tornado in more than 60 years.

JOPLIN — The storm that destroyed a large section of Joplin on Sunday left citizens wondering how to pick up their lives and move forward.

Some residents went to the Red Cross shelter in Missouri Southern State University’s Leggett & Platt Athletic Center.

Early Tuesday morning, two Joplin residents sat talking at plastic tables in the shelter. Rows of cots, some occupied with sleeping residents, lined the floor where chairs had stood for the Joplin High School graduation just before the tornado hit.

Carl Wallace and Donald Wiese both lived in single-level apartments at Redwood Gardens, near the heart of Joplin’s devastated commercial district.

“It took the top off the right side of my apartment,” Wiese said. “Now all that water’s come in there. I went back yesterday morning, and the ceiling’s all down in the kitchen.”

“They’re gonna bulldoze the whole thing, I think,” Wallace said. “That’s the problem now. We don’t have utilities to work with ... in the transition in moving.".”

“They said, 'Move, this place is closed,'” Wiese said. “We’re homeless.”

Wiese moved into Redwood Gardens several months after his wife passed away last year. On Tuesday, Wiese was waiting for his insurance adjuster to arrive, which he said would take several days.

Wallace had lived in the complex since 1999. He remained in his apartment until Tuesday, despite a lack of water and electricity.

The security of their homes and belongings was a concern for both Wallace and Wiese.

“What good’s it gonna do to lock the front door when they can go in the windows in the back?” Wiese asked.

Wallace and Wiese were not sure as of Tuesday morning where they would relocate, but Wallace decided later Tuesday to live with his daughter in San Antonio.

Wiese has a brother in St. Charles, Ill., and nephews in Washington and Oregon, but he said he was uncertain about what direction to take.

“I’ll be all right,” Wiese said. “I’ll be going to shelters, and at this time, I don’t know where I’m gonna be settled at.”

As clouds formed Tuesday afternoon in advance of continuing severe thunderstorms, other Joplin residents sorted through the remnants of their homes and lives in neighborhoods west of the flattened Range Line Road commercial area.

Betty Robbins said she and her husband were staying with friends and wanted to get insurance matters settled. In the meantime, she surveyed what was left of her belongings and gathered what she could, especially photographs.

“None of the furniture is salvageable, but … my pictures — I’m trying to find pictures, and from there, I don’t know,” Robbins said. “We’ll have to find someplace to live. We’re just taking it one day at a time.”

Some of her photos were spared, but some had gotten wet or ended up on the floor of her home. She had been unable to find pictures of her grandmother, but she said she found pictures of her son, who died from leukemia when he was 8 years old.

Robbins also found a picture of her brother, who died in 1955, and ones of her mother, who died just two weeks ago.

Amber Gilpin, her husband and their three children found their home in ruins after taking cover at a Freeman hospital.

“There’s nothing left,” Gilpin said. “We walked about two miles with our kids … with downed power lines … We’ve been through hell. We lost everything.”

Gilpin said her father-in-law found a room for the couple and their children at a Sleep Inn. By Wednesday, they had run out of money and could no longer stay in the hotel.

“What do we do?” Gilpin said. "We don't know."

She called the Federal Emergency Management Agency line, but had trouble getting through to speak to anyone.

“It’s nonstop busy," she said, “and then they give you a recording to get on the website, and who has (access to) a website right now?”

Gilpin said the family found a one-bedroom studio apartment, but later learned that it was no longer available. Gilpin said she and her children would stay in Claremore, Okla., with a friend while her husband searched for a new home for them in Joplin.

“The one question that people want to know around here is, 'What’s next?'” Gilpin said. “Where do we go?”

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