The Herald’s Jeff McNiell shares his experience alongside others from Houston in the tornado-torn town through a running diary:
5:32 a.m. — It is still dark outside when I arrive at First Baptist Church with my wife, Brittney, and a member of our youth group. There are a couple small tasks — getting the bottled water in a cooler, loading our food for the day and setting up the GPS in the van — to finish before we leave in 30 minutes. We’ve stocked up on peanut butter and jelly and chips to be sure we are self-sufficient during our day. I’ve got my own stash of protein bars and bananas.
5:55 — The parking lot is quickly filling up. What began as a mission trip for our youth group has quickly expanded to a small convoy. Since I sent an e-mail to the parents of our youth on Wednesday afternoon informing them we would be going to Joplin, I’ve been contacted by Ozark Baptist Church and the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams at Houston High School. They all wanted to come along to help.
5:59 — We form a prayer circle in the parking lot. I lead a prayer for safe travel and our work ahead. We load onto five church vans. Two each are from First Baptist and Ozark Baptist and another is driven by Brent Kell, the girls’ basketball coach. Our associate pastor, Harold Bruening, is pulling a trailer with his personal vehicle. Chris Weaver, who attends our church and volunteered with his wife, Kristy, is pulling a second trailer with one of the church vans. Both are fully loaded with supplies collected throughout the week by the church and Houston chamber.
6:45 — Our groups arrive at McDonald’s in Mountain Grove for a quick breakfast. Fortunately, Audrey Kell had called ahead to let management know we had a large group that would be arriving soon. I get a head count from each van. We have 32 from First Baptist, 19 from Ozark and 11 representing the Lady Tigers’ basketball team. That number doesn’t include my wife, who is headed to Joplin with four of her co-workers from the business office at Texas County Memorial Hospital.
7:15 — I receive a text from boys’ basketball coach Dustin Kirkman. His group had decided to leave at 7 a.m. They will meet us in Joplin.
9:15 — Our convoy pulls into College Heights Christian Church in Joplin. After a day of busy signals and disconnected numbers, I had made contact with the church on Wednesday morning and registered our group as volunteers. The church is the official distribution center of all supplies being sent to Joplin. Several parking lots are full of vehicles. We are directed toward the back lot. Everyone stays put as I walk to the church to register our group.
9:17 — Bad news. After receiving our check-in instructions, I ask where to drop off our two trailers full of supplies. I’m told a mandatory hold on all supplies had been declared the previous evening by the City of Joplin. No questions asked. I explain that we had driven nearly three hours and hated to take the supplies back to Houston. The worker says he’s sorry that he can’t help. He said the entire town had been overwhelmed with supplies and was having a hard time keeping everything organized.
9:34 — Our group begins the check-in process. It includes registering and making a name tag. We are directed down a hallway and into a small classroom, where each person fills out a waiver form and marks a list of potential clean-up tasks.
9:45 — The next stop is outside the church chapel, where we will receive directions and our assignments. While waiting, one of the workers tells us he had been on a chain saw crew the previous day. He instructs us to be sure to grab a sack lunch and take lots of water for both ourselves and any homeowners.
In the lobby near the chapel door are rows of tables with canned goods, water and hygiene products. There are several tornado victims pushing carts and taking items from the tables.
9:59 — We take our seats inside the chapel. A volunteer asks where our group is from. When told Houston, he says one of the church administrators is from Houston. He says Nelson and Susan Horton, who is the daughter of Dr. Joe Wall, are members there. “Your town is famous because of them,” he says.
The volunteer stresses the importance of our work. He also explains the damage left by the tornado. He says the city hardly resembles itself. “I’ve lived here my whole life and have gotten lost,” he said.
10:10 — I expected our assignment would be inside the distribution center or on the outskirts of town. Wrong. We are assigned quadrant D7. It’s directly in the middle of the six-mile path of destruction left by one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history. The location is just a couple blocks away from what is left of Joplin High School, which along with St. John’s Hospital is one of the landmark buildings hit hardest by the tornado.
10:15 — There are boxes of neon green jackets and pants to take with us to identify ourselves as volunteers. Several kids grab boxes of waters. Chris Weaver grabs a chain saw and gas can.
10:53 — Travel is extremely slow through Joplin. Both lanes are bumper to bumper. It’s a normal city scene. Lots of restaurants and stores. No sign of any damage.
10:56 — My phone rings. It’s David Adkison, who has accompanied us from Ozark Baptist. He has good news. Forest Park Baptist Church is still accepting supplies. I tell him to relay the message to Harold Bruening, who has stayed behind to search for a place to unload the trailers.
10:59 — The ordinary-looking city scene suddenly changes. Stores are wiped out. Cars are crushed. Trees are knocked over. Neighborhoods are completely obliterated. It looks like a war zone. Our van full of teenagers is silent. In every direction is complete destruction. I’ve seen plenty of photos and videos of Joplin. They don’t do the damage justice.
There is no power. Officers are working the intersections. Addresses are spray-painted on houses. Cars are marked with a giant ‘X’ to indicate they’ve been searched. It’s a numbing scene.
11:14 — We turn onto Grand Avenue. Homes are completely flattened. Literally. Most are nothing more than pile of debris stacked on a concrete foundation. We stop between 23rd and 24th streets.
11:18 — What seems like an impossible clean-up job begins. We select a home with only a single closet standing. The rest of the home is demolished. There is no lawn or grass visible. There are piles of broken boards, shingles and siding.
We have a paper with instructions of how to stack debris. Electronics go in one pile. Household items and building materials in another. They are to be placed curbside and will be picked up later. Piece by piece, we begin piling what used to be someone’s home alongside the street.
11:36 — A police officer stops to alert us that there are missing firearms in the area. We should contact authorities if we find any. He also says it’s possible we could discover a body as we dig through the rubble. The reality of the situation sinks in.
11:51 — Two boys find an American flag and hang it from a tree in the yard. It’s a common theme throughout Joplin. There are flags hanging from trees, businesses and those homes that are still standing.
12:05 — Chris Weaver calls my name from the back of the yard. He has discovered someone’s wedding band. It’s the first of many personal items our group finds. There are photos, insurance papers, stuffed animals and more scattered throughout the debris. What was previously a pile of rubble now has a personal touch. We discover a name and picture that belong to the homeowner
12:10 — A nail finds my right shoe. My dad has warned me to wear boots, but I didn’t believe we would be working in such a devastated area. Fortunately for me, it only grazes my sole.
12:15 — A truck full of girls stops and offers chicken sandwiches and water. It’s a common theme throughout the day. From pizzas and burgers to fajitas and gum, we were steadily being asked if we needed anything to eat or drink by volunteers driving up and down the streets. Many have signs on the side of their vehicles indicating they are from out of town.
12:18 — A steady rain begins. We continue to work. A photographer from Reuters arrives and begins taking pictures. He is followed by two more photographers from the Associated Press.
12:34 — A large lightning bolt lights up the nearby sky, forcing us to take a break. We load onto the vans and eat lunch while waiting out the storm.
12:48 — I receive a text message from my wife, who along with her co-workers has been working at a trailer park in another part of town. She says they had found an injured kitten and had taken it to be treated.
1:04 — Harold Bruening calls. He says Forest Park had taken most of the supplies off his trailer before the storm began. They are not accepting clothing. He is making phone calls for an alternate plan.
1:06 — It is still raining, but the lightning has subsided. Back to work.
1:44 — An insurance agent arrives and asks if we have found any personal items that would help identify the address. A few girls share papers they had discovered in the rubble. Based on what he reads, the man believes the address he is searching for is one yard over.
2:02 — We receive word that nearby Messenger College is also accepting items. Chris Weaver takes his trailer to the location. They take everything but our adult clothes.
2:27 — Robert Kinney, one of the youth from our church, steps on a large nail that requires a bandage. A few moments later, he steps on another.
2:57 — A stranger approaches me from the back of the yard. He asks if I’m with the large group helping clean up. When I say yes, he asks if we’d be willing to assist an elderly man who is searching for specific items from his home.
I follow the man one block over to Missouri Avenue. The house is even more flattened than the previous one we were working on. He points to an area toward the back of the home and says the homeowner desperately wanted a green, metal military box that had been in the closet. He says the boxes’ contents are important to the man. I agree to help and walk back to Grand Avenue to share our new task with the group.
3:05 — Before moving work sites, we take a bathroom break. We travel to Main Street, where the Salvation Army has set up portable toilets. We cross an intersection where members of the National Guard are directing traffic. In a nearby parking lot is a sign offering flat tires to be fixed for free.
3:30 — Our van arrives at 2315 Missouri St. The address is spray-painted on a wooden board in the front yard. Absolutely nothing is left standing of the structure. There is a small hole in the floor where we are told the elderly couple sought shelter from the tornado. They survived.
3:51 — Brittney and Jenny Calhoun leave the yard to visit with a woman next door. She tells them she lived there. She is 83 years old and was trapped for three hours in the debris. She had been able to call her daughter and tell her she was trapped. But the phone call dropped, and her daughter lived in Jefferson City. She was eventually rescued by two strangers. Brittney asks if there is anything our group can do to help. She says she “wasn’t worried about her stuff. She was just happy to be alive.”
4:07 — A group of Jasper County nurses pull up offering tetanus shots. Neither of the two nails I stepped on had penetrated by skin. But I did have a scratch down the inside of my forearm from a rusty nail that had drawn blood. One of the nurses suggests that I get the shot.
4:41 — We’re all weary. It’s been a long, emotionally draining day. We haven’t found the man’s box. We decide to take a 20-minute break to recharge.
5:05 — A woman comes to the house. She is the elderly man’s stepdaughter. She says he only cares about the contents of the box. Nothing else. She says it is a wooden box, not metal. We form a circle and pray for God’s help in locating his items.
5:59 — No box. But we do have good news. Throughout our search, we had been placing personal items on the hood of a smashed car in the front yard. The stepdaughter says a pair of old binoculars and dogtags — found by Linda Pamperien of TCMH — had been inside the box. Those were the items he had wanted. She thanks us for helping.
6:26 — We arrive back at College Heights to return the chain saw and our work pants and jackets. I have mixed emotions. I feel privileged to have helped, but overwhelmed by what seemingly little we accomplished in seven hours of hard work. I hurt for those who lost their homes. I hurt even more for those who lost family members. There is no sense of accomplishment, only a will to want to help more. Many members of our team ask me when we can return. Soon.
Stores are wiped out. Cars are crushed. Trees are knocked over.Neighborhoods are completely obliterated. It looks like a war zone.Our van full of teenagers is silent. In every direction is completedestruction.”