Joplin residents carry on after tornado

Tess Vigeland Nov 13, 2012
Stairs lead to an empty lot where a home once stood on South Joplin Avenue before the Joplin tornado in 2011. Newly constructed homes can be seen in the background. Steve Hebert for The New York Times

Joplin residents carry on after tornado

Tess Vigeland Nov 13, 2012
Stairs lead to an empty lot where a home once stood on South Joplin Avenue before the Joplin tornado in 2011. Newly constructed homes can be seen in the background. Steve Hebert for The New York Times

Even today, you can stand on what passes for a hill in Joplin’s midsection at 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, look east and look west and see empty space. The trees are still gone. Apartment complexes are gone. The hospital is gone. The high school is gone. That’s what happens when an EF-5 tornado touches down eviscerating everything in its path as it did there on Sunday, May 22, 2011 — 161 people died. As Joplin’s residents make their way through the stages of grief they want to share how they survived and how they’re preparing for the next one.

Raye Frerer, a 58-year-old teacher, was at her mother’s home south of Joplin that Sunday afternoon celebrating Mother’s Day a week late.

“And we were sitting in my parents’ little breakfast nook. And my mother, who is close the 80, said that’s the blackest cloud I’ve ever seen. And I looked at Fred and he looked at me and I thought, you know I do not want to get this hair wet! Wasn’t worried about the home, I was worried about the hair,” she says.

Raye and her husband Fred, who is 60 and retired, left for home. When they got there, Fred stood in the road to check the sky as he did every time a big storm came through town — until Raye called to him to get back in the house.

“I was really excited because the very first time ever in 33 years of marriage that I ask him to come in, he actually came in,” she says.

Fred came in after seeing what was clearly not just another twister approaching the town. This looked and felt different. Once Fred was back in the house, he grabbed a twin mattress from one of the beds and the two of them settled onto the floor of their small bathroom with the mattress on their heads.

“My chest started getting tight and my ears got tight and all of the sudden they started popping, they must have popped hundreds of times. And I thought: Lord, what on earth am I going to do? This is serious. And it didn’t sound like the tornado that had gone over my childhood home. That one sounded like a train. This sounded much more like World War III,” says Raye.

When the storm passed and the Frerers emerged from their bathroom they realized it was the only room still standing.

“Stood up, opened the door and realized I could see East Middle School and it had been destroyed. And I thought, oh the poor school, I wonder if we’ll have school tomorrow,” she says. “And then realized I shouldn’t be able to see the school.”

The walls were gone. The roof was gone. The house was gone — 33 years all gone. Raye now looks at the empty space as just a piece of property. But she says the first six months or so it was a loss of memories. They’d lost a lifetime of things to the tornado — wedding china, clothing, photos, all the accumulations of a household, many of them irreplaceable. And what was replaceable would cost them. But as Fred Frerer noted, money issues take a backseat to the imminent possibility of death.

“During all that I never thought one thing about what we might be losing. I don’t think through this whole thing that I’ve ever really worried about the financial part of it that much,” says Fred.

“I don’t think you can ever completely prepare financially for this — which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared because we did what we could do,” adds Raye.

But part of the reason they haven’t worried more is that the Frerers were more prepared than many of us are. And they give much of the credit to money guru Dave Ramsay and his Financial Peace University. Ramsey recommends always having $1,000 cash set aside where it’s easily accessible. The Frerers had that amount stashed in a safe in their bedroom closet. After the tornado the closet wasn’t there, but the safe was. Disaster preparedness experts say that’s an important element of any emergency planning.

Ted Beck, president of the National Endowment for Financial Education, says that after a disaster you can’t really assume that you’re going to have access to cash — especially if it’s something really significant like a major earthquake.

“The ATMs may not even be working,” says Beck.

But how much should you have on hand? Beck suggests the same amount as emergency officials recommend for food and water: three days’ worth. Those are the more immediate problems in the aftermath of disaster. The longer-term issues and frustrations tend to revolve around insurance. And one bit of bureaucracy the Frerers came up against was the demand for a list of the contents of their destroyed home, including what they paid for items, their current value, and replacement value.

“I did have a receipt box for a lot of major purchases. But what I didn’t realize was how much all of these little things are. I have 16 T-shirts or I have 22 pair of whatever it is,” says Raye.

And after the tornado, that receipt box for the bigger items was gone with the wind.

“I think it’s in Illinois now. Maybe it was in Iowa,” she jokes.

Beck says without receipts the best way to prove what you owned is with photos and videotape. Walk around your house and take a detailed inventory of what you own. Put it on a DVD or thumb drive and keep it in a safe deposit box or in the cloud.

The Frerers are now putting up a new house less than a mile from the one that blew apart around them. Their insurance covered all but $30,000 for the rebuilding, so they’re dipping into savings and retirement funds to get it finished. Contractors recently poured concrete — nearly 18 months to the day after the tornado touched down. At their new house, there’s a outline of recovery and redemption.

“There are more things to be thankful here,” says Raye.

They from pioneer stock, so that’s the way they want to live, she says. 

Drive just about anywhere around Joplin, Mo., on a Sunday morning with the windows rolled down and you know where to find a good percentage of its population. This is a city of church-goers in the heart of America’s Bible Belt. And there is widespread agreement that for all the destruction wrought on May 22nd of last year, God spared this community even worse pain. Michael and Tabitha Davison — members of this, the South Joplin Christian Church on Pearl Avenue — believe God spared them. But an argument can be made that their own foresight did that as well.

“So I was making hot dog sauce and I told my son, ‘Is there anything on the radar?’ And I kept telling him, ‘Is there anything on the radar?’ And he’s on the computer and he’s like, ‘No dad, there’s nothing on the radar.’ I’m like, OK,” says Micahel Davison.

That night Davison was at a home south of the tornado’s path with his 15-year-old son and a youth group from the church — where he works as a custodian. His wife Tabitha, who teaches at a religious private school, was at home directly in the tornado’s path. She was working on a plumbing problem: a showerhead that had leaked the entire decade since they bought the house — just before September 11, 2001.

“I mention that as an important detail. We moved into the house with a tragedy,” says Tabitha. “And we left the house with a tragedy.”

Joplin’s warning sirens first sounded around 5:10 p.m. Tabitha says she didn’t hear them. About 10 minutes later they sounded again. She looked out the window and didn’t see anything, but decided to move with her 12-year-old daughter, Emma, to the laundry room.

“And I just said, You know what, just for fun why don’t you get in the hope chest that grandma gave us at Christmas that had been in our family for generations and had been passed down to her. And she… gets her stuffed animals and her iPod and gets into the box,” says Tabitha.

Tabitha sat down next to the hope chest, placed her hand inside to keep contact with her daughter and hoped for the best. And then, the tornado was on them.

“It just was crazy. It wasn’t like a train. Trains are nothing compared to this sound. You hear this ferocious thing just hitting your house and you start then to feel the walls moving. We were praying the Lord’s Prayer. It sounds melodramatic now because we were not injured in any way, but at that time I faced my death — and possibly the death of my child,” she says.

When the storm passed they emerged to find a living room that opened to the sky and a second-story staircase to nowhere.

“And my first thought was God is so good. And that’s what I said, God is so good. Because our house is destroyed, but we are OK. The other thing that I said was looks like we’re going to have quite a decorating project over the summer! Little did I know,” she laughs.

They’re able to laugh now — 18 months later — in part because of the quick recovery afforded them by earlier decisions about insurance. Tabitha Davison’s mother had always told her to get replacement cost insurance as opposed to what’s known as an actual cash value payment. It’s more expensive, but it covers whatever it costs to buy everything new — including the house and all your belongings. They also had something called an inflation guard on their policy. It automatically adjusted to cover increases in rebuilding costs. They had all those protections because after discovering a coverage discrepancy in a previous policy they changed insurance companies.

“Every year when you get that giant packet of legalese you better read every page. You’ve got to take responsibility and read that paperwork and make sure you’re still covered at the level you thought you were covered when you started,” says Tabitha.

Their policy also included $10,000 worth of debris removal and demolition costs. Because their insurance was so comprehensive, six weeks after the storm they had a check in hand to cover the outstanding mortgage balance on the destroyed home as well as the full cost of a new one. Aside from getting insurance and making sure you check it every year, Davison had one other piece of practical advice.

“I would say that if you’re going to put together a kit, one thing that would be really good to have is just the names of your prescriptions and the milligrams that you’re taking,” she says.

And indeed that was one common issue faced by many Joplin residents. Stephanie Brady, vice chair of Joplin’s long-term recovery committee, noted that many pharmacies, including the local Walmart, were damaged or destroyed.

“That was one of the big expenses people had is their pharmacy’s gone, they’ve lost their prescriptions, their prescriptions are expensive, and they couldn’t get a new prescription or an actual script for that, let alone have the money to purchase that again,” says Brady.

Tabitha wishes her family had thought to put shoes on as the storm approached and that will be a priority next time. And there may well be a next time because they still live in Joplin — not far from their old house. They also now have a fire-safe box containing important household documents. They check their insurance documents every year. They’ve got a plan. But even had they done all that before May 22, 2011, they say no plan would have been sufficient for what happened that evening. And they know they were lucky.

“The house is destroyed, oh well. The van is destroyed, oh well. We have insurance. Who cares about stuff? You can’t replace people. You can replace your stuff,” says Michael.

“Yeah,” adds Tabitha.

Carrie Cook, 39, has a brand new house in Joplin, Mo. From the property you can look east or west and still see miles of empty land created by the tornado.

“This is Kentucky and the next street over is Grand and that’s where they’re going to be building the new high school. As you look down the hill, you see the steeple there, that’s one of our churches that was taken out, it’s just gotten rebuilt. And on the other side of there was a huge apartment complex, which is where we lived during the storm,” says Cook.

Cook works in the advertising department for the local cable company. She was supposed to be at her apartment cleaning on that Sunday evening in May of last year. Instead, she’d driven to her mother’s house for dinner with her 9-year-old son, Zachary. As they arrived, the sirens blew. Minutes later, Cook’s ex-husband drove up with their other son, 7-year-old Aiden.

“He said ‘Everybody get into my car!’ And he told my mom ‘You’re coming, too.’ So we grabbed the dog and then he drove to my dad’s house, and as we were going into my dad’s storm shelter the fence and coming down. So we were right in the midst of it,” she says. “Basically everything happened instantaneously.”

After the tornado passed Carrie’s father and ex-husband went to check on her apartment. The top floor of the two-story complex was sheared away. Their first-floor apartment was uninhabitable.

“The boys’ rooms and the kitchen was completely gone. So all of that… You could see the front of the building, but the back of the building was just gone,” she says.

Cook says the calculation of what this could do to their finances began the moment she saw the destruction.

“All that processing and panic started that night. I couldn’t sleep. Once I got the kids laid down and sleepy, I mean I immediately went into panic mode,” says Cook.

She didn’t work for three weeks after the storm because the boys’ daycare had no electricity. The apartment complex they lived in was federally-subsidized housing.
For the first few nights after the storm they stayed in hotels courtesy of her mom’s employer. And after that, a succession of apartments. Her saving grace? Renter’s insurance.

“A lot of people around here didn’t have it. But I did have renters insurance and I had full coverage on my car even though it was paid for. I got my first check probably within five days,” says Cook. “I wouldn’t have a couch, I wouldn’t have TV, I wouldn’t have any of that stuff if I didn’t have the insurance money.”

A recent survey by the Insurance Information Institute showed less than a third of all renters in the United States purchase renter’s insurance despite owning an average $30,000 worth of household goods. The average cost of insuring that amount of property is about $12 a month. And Cook also had full coverage on her car instead of just liability — even though it was paid off.

Stephanie Brady, director of programs at The Independent Living Center, says lack of adequate coverage was a huge issue for lower-income families — 18,000 vehicles were damaged or destroyed and public transport wasn’t available for two weeks after the storm.

“A lot of people lost their jobs because they couldn’t get to their job because they didn’t have that transportation, so for a lot of people it just compounded,” says Brady. “And then because of those money issues — losing your job, losing your transportation, losing your housing — we’ve had a lot of people who’ve faced depression, not having the finances, not being able to support their family.”

Like the Frerers, who we heard from earlier in the show, Cook is a follower of finance guru Dave Ramsay. Because of that, she did have some cash set aside hidden in a piece of furniture in her apartment. That was one piece that was still intact after the storm came through. It wasn’t a lot, but at that point every dollar was helpful. And she says she was able to get through her first few months in large part because of the kindness of strangers.

“People from everywhere donated money. They’d hand you a Bible and it had $20 in it. They would just come up to you and give you gift cards,” says Cook.

Cook and her sons recently moved in to one of 65 homes being built by Habitat for Humanity this year in Joplin, part of a vibrant construction boom that’s going on all over her neighborhood and others. She says getting the house was a work of God. Habitat even built them an underground storm shelter so she and the boys have some place to escape to when the next tornado comes. All proof, she says, that some measure of good can come from disaster.

“We’ve been truly blessed. We never would have had a house had the storm not come. We try to look at the storm as a turning point in our lives — not the happiest day of our lives, but it was a major turning point for my family because we wouldn’t have this,” she says.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.