Everywhere you look in Joplin there are piles: piles of brush and trash, piles of broken brick and twisted metal, piles being moved by bulldozers and shovels, piles of broken houses and interrupted lives. The landscape is stark—leafless trees stand like skeleton hands and the wind blows trash and dust every which way. From a high vantage point you can make out the tornado’s basic path through town—random and wide and thoroughly brutal. Like a runaway lawnmower through high grass.
It would feel apocalyptic if the sun weren’t shining.
It would feel hopeless if so many people weren’t helping one another.
The Woodworth Family
In his decades as a foreman for the Empire Electric Company, Joplin native Ray Woodworth, 73, often encountered the destructive power of Missouri storms; he had cleaned up the splintered poles and repaired the downed power lines they left behind. He was well aware of their power. But those storms had “always been someone else’s storms.”
On May 22, Woodworth came face to face with his own storm.
I first met Ray and Sharon as they sat in mismatched folding chairs smoking cigarettes. “Hello, I’m with a group of volunteers,” I said. “Is there anything we can do to help you?” A response to the aftermath of the Joplin tornado had placed me in what had once been the Woodworths’ home. “Yes,” Ray says. “Everything needs to go into a pile.”
Like so many other homes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa and Springfield, Mass., there are three large piles in front of 2215 South Duquesne Road: one for wood, one for metals and one for everything else.
As we work to clear debris, we unavoidably uncover pieces of the Woodworths’ lives. On the ground we encounter both the ordinary and the priceless pieces of their home—both the commonplace and the irreplaceable. Their once-private life is now exposed to strangers: a soiled Christmas stocking, old love letters, baby clothes, a torn painting. Forty years of memories under the same roof.
What pile do those go into?
One Storm Story
As I sit in Ray’s borrowed pickup, he recounts the story for me. It unfolds like scenes from a Jerry Bruckheimer film: wailing sirens, a black wall of weather moving toward the house, impossible wind speeds, banging screen doors, an instinctive flurry of movements and a rush to the basement. Ray explains how the crawl space below their house let wind come up through the safe room and made it impossible to close the basement door. The waves of wind were so powerful they nearly pulled Sharon up and out of the basement as she tried to descend the basement stairs. Fortunately she was pulled to safety by their son. Ray says their time in the basement “seemed like forever,” but in the darkness it could have only been seconds. He says time stopped.
Even a week after the storm, Ray seems near tears as he describes it all. Trembling, he confesses, “I was never afraid of storms, but now I am, you know?”
When the family moved out of the basement, they emerged into a landscape dramatically different than the one they had known only moments before: every window shattered, drawers thrown about, hundred-year-old trees uprooted, Ray’s truck overturned and the home’s entire second floor gone—plucked off the house like a flower petal.
Their most shocking discovery was the presence of a small SUV in their backyard. The car had been thrown several blocks and came to rest in the Woodworths’ lawn. The frame had been crushed, but the vehicle sat upright with a driver inside. One of the Woodworths’ sons pulled the stunned driver out of his vehicle and into the basement while they waited the rain out.
Ray describes the devastated world above-ground as “unreal,” noting the loss of the beloved trees he had planted on the property 39 years before. “We had locusts and sweet gums and cottonwoods, and they’re all gone now.”
“It was two days before they’d let us back onto the property. There was some looting, too—my new power-washer is gone.” Ray wipes his brow with his hand and pauses. “They’re supposed to bring me a small shed—they promised it would be delivered here today.”
I sit quiet for several moments and let Ray collect his thoughts. He looks out of the truck’s cab at the shell of his home. “It takes the life out of you. I’m just too old to start over.”
Determined not to overwhelm me with the sadness of his loss, Ray tells me how thankful he is that his family is safe and that they had a basement to seek shelter in. He talks about the extensive generosity of volunteers, relief workers and his local church. Then he offers some grandfatherly wisdom about checking the details of my insurance policy.
I ask him if there’s anything he had lost that he was especially upset about, or if there’s one thing he wishes he still had. Ray smiles proudly, shows me his left hand and says, “Just this.” It’s a gold ring with an inset square diamond. “This was my father’s ring and he gave it to me before he passed. I don’t wear it all the time—just for special occasions. I keep it in a drawer upstairs.” But there is no more upstairs. “It’s like a miracle. … I looked for this ring for three days and looked everywhere—inside and out. Nothing.” The miracle came about like this: Four days after the storm, Ray gave up looking for the ring, everyone had given up. That day, the Woodworths’ oldest son, Matt, went “upstairs” to look for something else when he noticed a glint of sun reflecting something gold trapped between floor joists. There in the tiny crack was his grandfather’s ring—his father’s lost treasure. Tears fill Ray’s gray eyes as he tells the story and he again points at his hand. “He found it.”
“There’s a lot of people hurting and we’re just one of thousands,” Ray reminds me as we part ways. I shake his sturdy hand and thank him for his time. We both return to work—back to moving things into piles.
Just One of Thousands
There are no words to appropriately describe the scale of destruction, of need and of kindness I witnessed in Joplin—each should remain present in our collective and individual thoughts and prayers as we put distance between today and May 22. In my short time in Joplin, I was blessed to experience one family’s story of survival—one story of hope buried in the rubble of a hurting city. The Woodworths’ story of survival highlights much of what is hopeful in humanity: a mother rescued, the kindness of strangers, a treasure lost and a treasure found. In the midst of loss, many things are found—welcome reminders in a time of great suffering.
It reminds us all that hope exists—heirlooms plucked from the piles of rubble.
Austin Sailsbury lives, writes, and works in Copenhagen, Denmark. You can follow him on twitter @austinsails and at his blog Wayfarers All.