Joplin Mo. Tornado update from my friend Mike Sisk

Author:  Mike Sisk

Update from Joplin, Mo.

It’s been a hectic past few days.

Mikes Flickr pics  http://www.flickr.com/photos/msisk/.

This all started for me on Sunday around 4PM when I got a call from a friend in Joplin asking if my parents were OK. She said a tornado had just gone through town and there was a lot of damage.

I tried calling my folks but just got a busy signal on both their home phone and their cell phone.

I don’t normally worry much about these things since Joplin gets tornados all the time and my folk’s house — the house I grew up in — is a very sturdy house made out of foot-think limestone blocks, has a basement and is located just 1 block away from a siren.

The local and national news outlets were no help immediately after the storm so I turned to Twitter and Facebook. What I was hearing on there worried me and after seeing the images the weather channel was broadcasting of the damage to the St. John’s Hospital I was very worried. My folk’s house is not very far from that hospital.

I tuned in to the Joplin emergency services radio through an Internet radio scanner and what I was hearing on there was very worrisome — not only the location but the scope. This was obviously a major disaster.

I started packing my Jeep and planning a trip back not knowing if I would need to evacuate my parents or what. I filled it with tools, emergency supplies, and camping equipment just in case. (Mike currently lives near Portland Oregon)

Around this time, about 2 hours after the tornado went though town, I got a call from the Joplin police saying my parents were fine but the house was severely damaged. I told him I would be there ASAP and hung up — they were making a lot of calls and couldn’t take time for any questions.

Still not knowing the exact situation but knowing my parents were safe– I finalized my packing and was on the road heading away from Portland on I-84 around 9PM. I drove straight though the night getting updates on the situation from friends on Twitter, Facebook, and SMS. By now the scope of the disaster had gotten the attention of the national media and I started getting updates on the radio and web.

I made it to North Platte, NE on Monday before to sleep. I got back on the road Tuesday and had to take an alternate route through Kansas to avoid some severe thunderstorms.

I finally got to my folks house in Joplin Tuesday night just before a 9PM curfew went into effect.

My folks were fine and the house had surprisingly little damage. The power was out due to a tree falling on the power lead and yanking the line off the house. A lot of debris was around the house and a camper shell off a truck had landed in the backyard on the fence. The chimneys on the house were missing some bricks but no roof damage or broken glass.

Shortly after I arrived a severe storm went though. A tornado was spotted to the west of town so the sirens went off. It never touched down and later the sirens went off again when winds over 75-mph were measured and with all the loose debris around it was considered dangerous.

I got up the next morning around 6AM and walked around the neighborhood.

My folks got lucky. A few houses around them were damaged by falling trees, but one block further south the serious damage started and two blocks away everything was razed to the ground. One house collapsed as I was getting ready to take a picture of it; I wish I had the camera on video mode. The air smelled of natural gas and you could still faintly hear fire detectors going off in the ruble of some homes. Cars were smashed and overturned. A semi truck was upside down in the remains of a living room of another.

A nearby elementary school was reduced to an empty shell. Tetherball poles in the playground embedded in asphalt were bent parallel to the ground. An electrical substation next to the school was totally destroyed and large multi-ton transformers were scattered about.

Back at my folks house my first order of business was fixing their 6000-watt electrical generator. It was last used several years ago during an ice storm, but they couldn’t get it started this time. Some helpful neighbors and tried to fix it by removing the carburetor, but that didn’t help and it now leaked gas. I took it apart and it was obviously reassembled incorrectly. They had broken and complex little rubber gasket that sealed the float bowl and put the float in wrong. I got it back together correctly and with some starting fluid was able to get the generator fired up and running.

So we now had power. We had water and water pressure, but there’s a boil warning in effect since there’s so many broken water mains in town they couldn’t guarantee the quality of the water. Luckily the city water supply pumping plant is just three blocks away and was undamaged so we had plenty of pressure.

Next order of business; get a TV running. Cable TV in town is down, so my folks have no phone, TV, or Internet service. And TV is now all digital broadcast so their old normal TVs can’t pick up over the air signals anymore. Luckily they had ordered one of those free HDTV tuners awhile back and I was able to get that hooked up to their TV. So now they have TV.

Next: Coffee. My dad needs his coffee. With the electricity and gas out he didn’t have a way to boil water. I brought along my JetBoil backpacking stove and it heats several cups of water to a boil in just a minute or so. Coffee achieved.

With power, TV, and coffee my folks are now comfortable, so I could now help out some friends and their families.

My old high school friend Kim is a dental hygienist and her brand new office is about 5 blocks from my folk’s house. She hadn’t been out since the storm so I picked her up at her house in the undamaged northern part of town and went back to my parents and walked over to her office. It was totally destroyed. A tennis shoe was embedded in the brick work. A king-size mattress from somewhere was inside the waiting room. A chair from the waiting room had somehow found its way into Kim’s treatment room and had a 2×4 speared through the back.

We drove around town after this for awhile looking over the places we know so well. It’s surreal. The damage is just insane. There’s a quarter-mile-wide path from one side of town to the other that is stripped bare to the ground. Trees are either totally uprooted or stripped bare — even the bark is gone. Damaged cars are everywhere. I saw a guy driving a Porsche Boxster with no windshield and every body panel bashed.

At the site of one bank there was nothing left but the concrete bank vault. The sea-food restaurant I worked at in high school was reduced to one wall.

I’ll be amazed of the death count doesn’t increase dramatically — there’s just so much damage.

A lot of the deaths occurred at the Home Depot and the Wal Mart. People were inside seeking shelter from the storm and when the roof was pulled away by the tornado the tilt-up poured concrete walls fell over crushing people underneath.

The hospital that is getting a lot of the attention in the media is something else to see in person. It looks like the bombed out remains of a city. The devastation around it is unreal. It honestly brings to mind the photos of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing.

After driving around awhile we went back by Kim’s office since she forgot something she wanted to look for. We pulled into the parking lot and there was a minivan with no license plates there with a U-Haul trailer attached to the back. We could hear someone up in the attic of the office and yelled at them but they didn’t respond back.

About this time a police patrol was driving by so I flagged him down and told him someone we didn’t know was in Kim’s office. He said he’d check it out and had a National Guard soldier with him. They confronted the guys and called for backup. Soon we had about 20 cops in the lot from a dozen different agencies. They were looters from out of state pulling the copper wiring out of the building.

The police cuffed and hauled them off to jail. While this was going one I talked to the cop I flagged down first. He said he spent 2 years in Iraq and the devastation he’s seen in Joplin is worse than anything he ever saw while over there.

But at the same time the amount of generosity and helpfulness is impressive. Before I got in town someone went from house to house in my parent’s neighborhood asking if they wanted anything to eat — they had hot hamburgers and hot dogs for anyone that wanted some. And someone did the same with bottled water.

At Kim’s parents house I was just getting ready to fire up my chain saw when a truck with three kids came up and said they were volunteers and if we needed any help cutting up the downed trees. Sure, I said, and they got to work and quickly reduced the big trees to manageable logs and stacked them near the road.

There are aid and supply stations everywhere in town and we have law enforcement people from all over the midwest helping out. People are really pulling together here as a community.

Ok, I’ve gone on long enough. I still have a lot of work to do today and still need to get my folks house cleaned up from debris. And I need to get on the roof for a though inspection. I also need to file an insurance claim for them and get the FEMA paperwork filled out.

I’m doing OK, but it’s a lot of work and emotionally draining with so much destruction around.

**Udate from mike on Fri, May 27, 2011**

Hey guys,

Not much to update today — still no power or internet at my folks and AT&T data coverage is still on and off. We’re suppose to get power today and Internet for the north part of town today and the southern damaged part later this weekend. Apparently a major fiber line though the area was cut by the tornado and it’s been a low priority.

Right now I’m at a local truckstop using their Wi-Fi and another storm system is moving though the area. In addition to the tornado damage that’s getting all the attention, we’re also having a lot of flooding in the area from all the rain.

Another person was found dead yesterday so the official death count is at 126. It’s expected to climb dramatically in the next few days. I’ve talked to several friends who’s houses disintegrated around them while they hid in closets or bathrooms with their families. Just horrifying.

Mike

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