Joplin: One year later


From May 8, 2012 — demolition on Joplin’s hospital continues, almost a year after it sustained a direct hit from a massive tornado. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A year ago, I was preparing myself to go on my first tornado chasing adventure. It seemed like a week of fun, and a weather nerd’s dream. I’d be sitting in a car, representing The Weather Channel and riding all over the Plains. I was excited to visit parts of the country I’d never get to see otherwise.

May 22, 2011 changed all of that.

I still got to chase with the team for a week at the end of the month, but it wasn’t the same after complete devastation occurred in Joplin, Mo. The “Great” had to be scrapped from “The Great Tornado Hunt” because it just didn’t seem so great anymore. We had to drive around for the rest of May in a vehicle that still labeled (for all the world to see) our quest to find tornadoes as “Great.”

I wasn’t in Joplin when the tornado hit; it happened a week before I was slated to join the chase. I was at home, watching it on tv, knowing full-well that I could have been there, watching people die.

It was chaos.

A year later, I can say the Joplin tornado and its aftermath was hands-down the most emotional event I’ve ever covered in my career. I’ll never forget sitting down and turning on The Weather Channel to see Mike Bettes and crew driving down the streets of Joplin less than 20 minutes after the tornado wiped out the town.

When media types and other people say “There’s nothing left” when referring to tornado damage, they’re wrong. Everything is still left, and seeing pictures of how the tornado left it is the most heartbreaking aspect of weather coverage. People’s raw emotion can’t be hidden in the moments following tragedy, and the fact that I watched it live, along with the rest of the country, made that Sunday night very difficult.

Since then, I’ve been on the Joplin beat with weather.com. I’ve produced and written several stories in the last year, and I put together multiple slideshows of the destruction and rebuilding in the town.

I was hoping to be in Joplin today, but a change in weather patterns forced the Tornado Hunt to suspend their 2012 chase, and they resumed just days ago. It made sense for me to travel with them for 10 days, but due to an upcoming vacation, I would have only been able to go out for about five, after the chase restarted. Therefore, no Joplin trip for me.

It’s too bad, because I almost felt like I needed to see it — needed to be there to speak with some of the people who survived one of the deadliest weather disasters in American history. To have a chance to share a conversation with the people I saw on tv on May 22, 2011, panicked and bloody while sifting through the remains of the home for a dog or possibly their own child, would have been inspiring. The survivors are just that; they’ve grown and learned a lot about their lives in the last year, and the lessons learned are lessons we can all use, even if our house doesn’t get leveled in the process.

There’s still a long way to go for the town, as there would be for any city, a year after being hit by an EF5 tornado. The high school is still a heap of rubble, but it will be rebuilt in time. For now, the students continue to study in a nearby mall.

The one-year anniversary is a painful reminder to everyone affected by the tornado, even those who were loosely connected, like me. If you have a chance, watch this video that tells the story of Joplin High School’s past year — it’s one of the best videos you’ll ever see about the event.

And if you can make it all the way through the video without getting a little misty, you’re a lot stronger than this writer.

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