Family given house by Habitat for Humanity after Joplin tornado

Thursday, November 24, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 6:06 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 27, 2011
A volunteer works on a house on Kentucky Avenue that was destroyed by the tornado in Joplin on Oct 30. Ten for Joplin rebuilt 10 of the homes that were destroyed and, on Nov. 19, presented the keys to the families.

JOPLIN — Samantha Short has ambitious plans for Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, ham, stuffing, gravy, Great Grandma's chicken noodles, green bean casserole, corn casserole, cheesecake, as well as Butterfingerand pumpkin pies.

Short rattled off the menu to the rhythm of hammers securing wooden rafters onto her roof.


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In just a few weeks, she and her family of six would be given keys to a new home, built by Habitat for Humanity after the May 22 tornado nearly leveled the Shorts' two-bedroom apartment in Joplin. 

They would be able to move out of a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer and spend Thanksgiving together in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a front porch and sage-green siding.

In addition to Samantha, the family includes her husband, Thomas; 5-year-old Gavin and 3-year-old Chloe from Sam's previous marriage; 3-year-old Kenna from Thomas' previous marriage; 7-month-old Morgan and another baby on the way.

On Thursday, they will eat Thanksgiving dinner around a glass-topped kitchen table donated by a neighbor and give thanks to all the people who made it possible.

"We thought it wasn't going to happen to us," Sam said. "But here we are, getting our house built."

In October, the Tulsa and Joplin branches of Habitat for Humanity began a 16-day building blitz to provide homes for the Shorts and nine other families who lost theirs in the tornado.

All of the homes were built within a few blocks of each other, overlooking the crumbled brick walls of Joplin High School, which still stand as a scar on the landscape.

Volunteers traveled from cities across Missouri and Oklahoma, often leaving home as early as 4 a.m. to start a nine-hour day at the construction site.

In addition to the Habitat volunteers, each family getting a new home from the project — dubbed Ten for Joplin — is required to work on the project for 300 hours, a down payment Habitat calls "sweat equity." Families also make monthly payments on a mortgage until they own the home.

On one brisk Saturday morning in mid-November, a group of them met in the parking lot of the high school. At 7 a.m., it still wasn't light enough to turn off the generator-powered lights.

Their hands wouldn't thaw until lunchtime after gripping a paintbrush in the harsh, chilled wind of a fall Missouri morning. Fingernails would soon be caked with white paint, scraped from rollers. Shoulders would ache from digging rocks out of the mud that would be someone's front lawn.

During the first weekend of the project, the Shorts spent time on the construction site with their kids.

Daughter Chloe was able to put into words the devastation with the succinctness of a toddler. "The tornado broke these homes just like it broke our home," she said.

For the Short family, May 22 began early in the morning when Samantha noticed her daughter Morgan was having trouble breathing.

At 1 a.m., she and her husband packed Morgan into a carrier, woke up 3-year-old Kenna and called for a taxi. Their two other children were visiting their father in Lamar.

Morgan had been born two weeks earlier at St John's Hospital, and she usually sees a pediatrician there, but the couple decided this time to check into Freeman Hospital.

This decision would put them in pediatric center in the basement of the hospital when an F-5 tornado ripped through the city 16 hours and 41 minutes later. By that time, Kenna had already been picked up by her grandmother. 

When the storm hit, the staff began guiding families into a hallway. At the time, they couldn't see much more than wind and debris whipping past the windows.

Thomas kept creeping back into the room to watch the storm roll in, Sam said. At one point, Thomas opened the window and the force of the suctionsealed the hospital room door, he said. No one heard a tornado siren.

Then the lights flickered and died. Sam said she felt herself beginning to panic. Fire alarms began blaring, and the staff shut the doors to the hallway.

Sam turned to Thomas: "If there's a fire, I'm taking our baby and jumping out the window."

Someone yelled down the hallway: "Range Line is gone."

Sam learned later that an uncle had been caught at 20th Street and Range Line Road; his body was found under a pickup truck. Her parents, grandmother, sister and aunt and Thomas' parents had all made it to safety.

"As much family as I have here, I can't believe I only lost one family member," she said. "I'm so thankful."

Thomas told the staff he wanted to help, but they wouldn't let him through the front door — so he climbed out a window.

At 3 a.m., he returned to the hospital, and the family stayed there most of the day. Leaving Freeman Hospital in the evening, they turned left onto St. John's Boulevard and headed toward some of the heavily damaged neighborhoods.

On the way, Thomas tried to prepare Sam for what she would see: "I want to let you know it's bad, really bad," he said.

When she saw it for herself, she said she was speechless. Buildings, trees and houses were in piles.

As they drove home, Sam didn't recognize the streets they were passing. The signs and distinguishing landmarks had all been flattened.

Even today, she still gets lost after dark, despite living in Joplin almost her entire life.

"I didn't know how bad it was until that next day," she remembered.              

In mid-October, Sam and Thomas married on a farm in Conway. They had planned a ceremony in May, but the tornado interrupted their plans.

Once they recovered from the shock of the storm, they decided to attend church services every Sunday, and now they pray often. Sam believes the chance to own a home at age 23 was the work of God.

Before there were even walls, she had already picked out the colors she wanted in the house: almond brown in the living room and light pink for the nursery. Gavin declared his room needed to be neon green with Jesus on the wall.

The night after Sam learned her family had been selected for the Ten for Joplin project, she began searching the Home Depot website for furniture, frames, all the things they lost.

She checked the cart halfway through the online shopping spree — the total was already more than $7,000.

"We're just going to have to buy things one at a time," she said.

One recent Saturday when there wasn't much work left on the house, Sam decided to seek out the Habitat volunteers and thank them individually for their time.

"If it weren't for these people, we wouldn't be in this house," she said. "It gives me goosebumps.

"A lot of bad things came out of it, but a lot of good things did, too."

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