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'Just Glad To Be Alive,' Tornado Survivors Say

Donald and Helen Capps of Joplin, Mo., sit in a temporary Red Cross shelter at the Robert Ellis Young Gymnasium at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Mo.
Mark Schiefelbein
Donald and Helen Capps of Joplin, Mo., sit in a temporary Red Cross shelter at the Robert Ellis Young Gymnasium at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Mo.

Ronnie Houston refused to look up.

As a tornado tore through his house Sunday in Joplin, Mo., Houston was crammed into his bathtub, holding tight to his wife and their granddaughter.

"I didn't see anything," Houston says. "I was just praying and kept my eyes shut."

Now, his house on Connecticut Street is "destroyed," he says. "The tub, that's all that's left."

Like a lot of people in Joplin, Houston has lost nearly everything he once owned. He works in construction, so he may well be busy in the months ahead. But as of Monday night, he hadn't been able to find out whether his employer was still in business.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, people in Joplin didn't seem to talk about what comes next. They were just starting to get over their shock and still nervously discussing the latest increases in the death toll.

For those who survived, that's all that matters right now.

Earl Van Beek  said his first night at the shelter, "there was no pushing, there  was no rudeness. It went perfectly."
Alan Greenblatt / NPR
Earl Van Beek said his first night at the shelter, "there was no pushing, there was no rudeness. It went perfectly."

"I'm just glad to be alive," Houston says.

Damage Deep But Limited

Sunday's tornado turned six miles of buildings into matchsticks. Water service can be spotty and, with traffic lights out, people tentatively take turns driving across intersections all over town.

But many parts of Joplin did not suffer noticeable damage. The city's downtown core, which is slowly being revitalized into a shopping and entertainment district, was left untouched.

"If you're in the corridor, you're devastated," says Rob O'Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, at his office at 4th and Kentucky. "Here, it looks like business as usual."

Staging Areas

The city is in its "shock and assessment" phase, O'Brian says. Joplin lost some retailers and two of its manufacturing companies, but O'Brian says enough of the city was left undamaged to be able to stage a recovery.

We graduated 450 students and we don't even know how many are left.

Despite the loss of housing, most people have been able to bunk with friends or neighbors. But some have been staying in churches, and about 200 people slept on cots Monday night at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross at Missouri Southern State University's athletic center.

Over the previous couple of weeks, Southern had staged an earthquake preparedness training exercise for a multi-state group of governments and had reached an agreement with the Red Cross to furnish shelter during disasters.

These moves proved well-timed and helpful in facing the town's actual catastrophe, says Rod Surber, Southern's director of university relations and marketing.

"Certainly we were thinking in that direction," he says. But, he adds, "We would have liked to have an exercise or two before this."

Effects On Pets

It kept on raining in Joplin. After one particularly loud and close thunderclap Monday afternoon, everyone at the Southern shelter seemed to jump at once, letting out a collective "Whoa!"

Tayler Wright says her new puppy, Jay, is still traumatized by all the noise from the storms. Like other pets brought in by survivors, Jay is staying in a cage in a darkened hallway alongside the university pool.

Wright's other pet didn't make it. "An 8-year-old cat," she says. "Let me rephrase that. He was a mountain lion."

Jay will get big, too, being part Labrador and part Great Dane. But at 8 weeks, he's small enough to fit in the crook of Wright's arm.

Graduation Season

Wright had just received Jay on Sunday as a gift for graduating from high school. Her commencement exercises finished just before the storm hit.

Her mom teaches special ed at Joplin High School, which was torn apart by the storm. Their apartment is OK — the family is being kept out not by damage but by an area-wide evacuation order. But Wright is worried about whether her mom will have a job and whether she'll be able to afford to come back to Southern, which she plans to attend in the fall.

Mostly, she worries about her classmates. One of her fellow students died at the school Sunday after a football workout, despite seeking shelter in a basement.

"We graduated 450 students," she says, "and we don't even know how many are left."

Starting To Adjust

Ambulances seemed to be pulling up constantly to the Red Cross shelter's front door Monday, taking away people whose injuries required more serious attention than could be provided on-site.

I've never been happier in my whole life. God saved my life.

Plenty of people who remain at the shelter are wearing bandages that cover up stitches. But there are no tears.

"When people first come in, they're just stunned," says Doug Heise, a Joplin psychologist. "They're hopeless, they're helpless, they're just stunned."

They need some project — some practical things to do, Heise says. Just taking some of the steps necessary to rebuild their lives, such as calling insurance companies, will give people a sense of direction and purpose.

For now, after having been bruised so badly by the weather, people just seem to want to be gentle. Not only are there more volunteers than there is work to do the first day, but also, the survivors go out of their way to be courteous with each other. Mothers insist that children ask first before taking candy clearly intended for them. "Manners matter," one says.

"Here's the thing I can say about Joplin," says Earl Van Beek, describing his first night at the shelter. "There was no pushing, there was no rudeness. It went perfectly."

Counting Up The Toll

It's in the coming days and weeks that the work — both the emotional work of recovering and the physical work of rebuilding and filling out the paperwork necessary to do so — will get harder.

There have been some recoveries from the damaged area, but people in Joplin expect that the death toll will continue to rise. Too many of those who made it out heard screams and crying in their neighborhoods to think otherwise.

"When I crawled over the rubble, a man was screaming," says Larry Daniel, describing the scene Sunday at the Greenbriar Nursing Home, where he'd been recovering from back surgery.

Daniel's room was wrecked, along with his walker and his new TV. With no roof up above, Daniel looked up at the sky. "The hail was hitting me in the head, and I thought I was going to die," he says.

In the absence of his walker, Daniel sits in a wheelchair. Like nearly everyone else at the shelter, he's wearing donated clothing. He has bruises around his right eye and cuts all over his body. On Monday, he had a nail removed from his back. He doesn't think it will impede his recovery from his earlier back surgery. "I'm just in pain now," he says.

But Daniel will take the pain. "I've never been happier in my whole life," he says. "God saved my life."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.