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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Covering the Joplin tornado a moving, life-changing experience

By Kristen Zeis
May 28, 2011 | 4:40 p.m. CDT
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.

For four days, what is left of the streets of Joplin was my newsroom.

I am a photojournalism major, but this summer I’m also a reporter in the Missourian newsroom. My role in covering the tragedy was twofold — with my camera and with words.

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I was part of an away team that was sent to Joplin on Monday afternoon along with reporters Molly Bullock and Eliza Smith and staff photographers Kristan Lieb and Christopher Parks.

Because the depth of the destruction was so great, Molly and I worked as a team to ensure we would document the experience ethically and accurately.

When I decided I wanted to be a photojournalist, I knew I wouldn’t always be covering happy news. After all, journalism isn’t about the fluff.

I’ve covered some pretty intense topics in my five months at the Missourian. I’ve covered two tornadoes, a suicide and a cancer patient fighting for not only her survival but also her unborn child’s.

Hard news like this was no new feat for me — but that didn’t make the realization of where I was and what I was seeing any easier.

I was able to draw on my experience from documenting the Good Friday tornado in St. Louis, which helped prepare me for what I was about to experience. I also had a five-hour car ride to Joplin to get my thoughts together, gather myself and prepare for what I was going to experience.

On the ride to Joplin, I posted my thoughts to Facebook:

“45 minutes away from Joplin. My heart is aching for those who have suffered and lost loved ones. I'm nervous about what I'm going into.... the things I will see, hear, smell, and experience. As a journalist, I pray that I'm able to cover this with as much grace and respect as humanly possible.”

As a journalist, you work to cover events, to tell stories and to show through your work what people are feeling, seeing and experiencing. My frustration in Joplin was that the pictures and words just couldn’t completely convey the magnitude of this disaster.

Nothing can fully show or tell what it is like unless you are there.

But being there and documenting such a tragedy reminded me why I want to be a journalist. Being able to spend 10-hour days on the streets of Joplin talking with these residents — while draining — is one of the more influential things I’ve been able to do in my career.

As journalists, we are trained to be strong in these situations. We are trained to keep our personal feelings separate from the story. But being in Joplin, seeing the things that I saw, documenting it was just so real. As a human, how do I not feel and be sad about the things that I am seeing? How can I feel this and yet continue to remain strong for the subjects who I know are facing pain that makes mine so minuscule?

It’s hard to explain what it felt like when I had to interview people about their experiences with the tornado when at my feet was what was left of their homes.

A town they once called home is now filled with thousands of people all tied together by the fact that they are all survivors. Driving along the main streets of Joplin, it’s hard to imagine how anyone survived.

After covering events like this, I am reassured that this is what I want to do with my life. After I covered the St. Louis tornado, my uncle asked me if I felt like a vulture while I was out documenting the destruction. I replied, "absolutely not."

What do you do when disasters like this happen? You look for photos. And what do those photos do? They get communities to come together and rally support — like Thursday night, when Columbia residents pledged more than $1 million in aid.

That money will go a long way in helping the survivors of Joplin, who are all feeling more pain than the rest of us could ever begin to imagine.

Kristen Zeis is a senior photojournalism major who works as a reporter for the Missourian. She has also spent time at the newspaper as a photographer while taking the staff photojournalism class.