Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Finger of God", The Destructive Force of the Joplin Tornado

As I begin to write this at 2pm on Monday, May 30, 2011 I reflect on last week at this time. One week ago at this time I was returning from Joplin, MO. I drove to Joplin on Sunday, May 22, 2011 after watching coverage of the Joplin tornado on TWC (The Weather Channel). When the reporter on scene broke down I told my Wife, Amy, I had to go photograph the damage. When I expressed this to Amy I had no idea what would unfold the following week.

My brother-in-law, Lee Myers, was at my home that Sunday. We were watching TWC because of severe weather in our area. We had taken shelter a few times due to the threat of tornadoes near my home. We had even ventured out after the storms passed and watched as a tornado tried to develop in the storm system that had just passed over us.

After spending some time watching the weather in our area we turned the television back on. It was already tuned to the TWC. The damage reports and scenes on the screen were unbelievable! Lee and I discussed going to Joplin. We spent the evening watching the reports and talked seriously about leaving soon. Around 11PM Lee, and my Sister Bethany, left for their home. I told Amy one last time that I was serious about going to Joplin and realized it was out of the ordinary. My wife seemed to sense the importance of going and told me to call Lee and express my sincere feeling about leaving. After a short call with Lee, who had pulled over a few blocks from my home to think about driving to Joplin, we decided this was important.

Lee and I left my home around midnight Sunday. Joplin is a four hour drive and we knew we would need to drive through the night to be in Joplin at sunrise. Along our drive we were passed by Task Force 1, a search and rescue team out of Boone County Missouri. Between Springfield and Joplin we were passed by seven ambulances traveling from the Joplin area towards Springfield on I-44. We were forced to exit I-44 at 71 North, the highway was closed. We drove North into Carthage and stopped at a McDonalds to get our bearings. It was there we saw our first glimpse of the media making their way to Joplin. A Fox 2 truck from St. Louis was refueling. We were in Carthage around 4:30AM.

After a quick stop in Carthage we proceeded to Joplin. As we entered Joplin we could see some scattered debris. The street lights were not working anywhere in the city. We were careful as we moved through town and gave any vehicle that looked official the right of way. Near the center of town there were groups of ambulances and other rescue vehicles gathered. From the South we could see ambulances coming and going. We drove South into the middle of town until we reached road blocks at 20th Street. We drove down one residential block which was pitch black and had debris scattered across the road. The homes were standing, but it was difficult to see the homes due to the power outage.

On 20th and Main we stopped at a road block and asked an officer if we could park nearby. We were directed into the KFC parking lot. We parked next to a white Pontiac with all of the windows blown out. We arrived in the dark, around 5AM, the photo below was taken later in the morning as we were leaving.

Lee and I walked down Main Street South of 20th after receiving permission from the officers at that intersection. The scene was something out of a movie. Destruction to buildings was unimaginable. Rescue vehicles and police lined Main Street. It felt like walking onto a large movie set, which I've never done. We stopped at 26th Street due to a second road block. Lee and I felt we may be in the way if we moved any further South.

As the first sign of daylight filled the sky we walked back North to 24th Street. It was here that we would really enter the surreal world the tornado had left behind.

We walked East on East 24th Street into an area where the sunrise peeked over a distant horizon to reveal block after block of total devastation.

We were among only a few people in the this area as we made our way East. The first people we encountered were rescue workers checking homes once again for any signs of life.

One rescue worker was trying to find his way. I pulled up Google maps on my iPhone to pinpoint our location and try to help them find their way. Shortly after that we encountered a resident looking for their home. Again, I showed where we were on my iPhone. While it helped them realize what street we were on it was still difficult for them to pinpoint which direction they needed to go to find where their home once stood.

Lee and I moved East on 24th photographing the debris, about the only thing the tornado left behind. Only a few homes were left standing in this area.

After walking several blocks toward the School grounds we turned around to see just how vast the area was we had walked through. Destruction as far as we could see.

I cannot put into words my feelings while walking through this neighborhood. While there I was numb and no doubt in shock. A week later I still have a difficult time describing the destruction. Lee made this comment to me "There are machines designed to crush cars, the tornado did that in a matter of seconds!". That was so true. . .

I heard a report that the tornado received the F5 rating in part because of the damage to the technical building on the High School campus. The building, as I understand it, was designed to withstand a large tornado. It did not.

I've used a few of the images I took in Joplin to write this blog entry. All of the images I took can be found here: Joplin Tornado Damage

Of all the images I took in Joplin the image below seemed to "say it all" as it was passed around the internet. I've found this image on websites all over the world. I was contacted by CNN, FOX, ABC, NPR, and other media outlets about using the image to convey the extent of the damage.

The image can be seen here on my Flickr account: Joplin Panoramic

I spent the week of 5/22/2011 answering messages from the media first. Once the image was shown in several media outlets the image went viral online. After that I received messages thanking me for sharing my photos to tell the story. I had people contact me in their search for loved ones in Joplin. I answered every message the best I could to help those in their search. I answered the media by allowing them to use my image to tell the story. I was shocked by the response to my photographs. My Flickr account received over 1,000,000 hits in three days!

The most important messages to me were the ones thanking me for using my photography to tell the story in Joplin. As the end of the week approached the messages slowed and I had time to listen to or read a few of the interviews I had done earlier in the week. Each one succeeded in bringing me to tears. I had become a small part of the Joplin story by traveling there for the first time during this tragedy. The photos I took helped millions understand the severity of the situation, something I have a hard time comprehending.

At this point I would like to say it was never my intention to show the despair or the hurt to those in Joplin. My intentions were to show the powerful destructive force of the tornado. While a few people do appear in my photos I did not focus on the residents as they tried to pick through what was left of their lives.

Around 8AM Lee and I noticed several more residents returning to their homes. It was then we decided it was time for us to leave and give them room to move about and begin the process of putting their lives back together. Many have lost loved ones in unspeakable ways and I feel physically sick for them when I reflect on the damage in Joplin. I can only hope that my photography helped motivate others to help!

It is no wonder an F5 tornado is called "The Finger of God". The destructive force reaches far past personal and/or commercial property. It scars those involved mentally and emotionally as well. What is done in a short period of time can only begin to heal over an extended amount of time.