JOPLIN, Mo. — On May 22, 2011, everything changed for one Midwest city. The EF5 tornado that struck Joplin was the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history, killing 162 people, displacing 9200 residents and destroying 25% of the town.
The traumatic experience affected everyone in the area in some way, but each person has a unique story of what they went through that fateful Sunday afternoon. This is inside the world of: tornado survivors.
Local artist, wand maker and performer Lee Humphrey was at his home at the Hampshire Terrace apartments when the storm rolled in.
Humphrey heard something thump on the roof and went outside to check it out. Hail.
“I looked out over Dillon’s and I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my life. The whole sky was just black and there was just this little strip of purple that I don’t ever want to see again,” said Humphrey.
Train tracks laid nearby. He thought he heard a train coming, but quickly realized that what he was hearing was much worse.
“By the time I got back to the door of our apartment building, I was already being pelted with stuff,” he said.
“‘We’ve got to get out of here,'” said Humphrey’s wife, Diane, as he stepped into their upstairs apartment.
They joined their neighbor across the hall — a young woman with a baby. They all ran downstairs and hid under the stairs of their apartment building.
“I was kind of standing with them in front of me against the wall and my back to the hallway. I knew it was going to be bad when the carpet that was sitting in front of the door just shot across the floor. And then it started building and building,” said Humphrey.
All they could do was hold on.
“It got terrible. It was awful. First the front door came off, then the front of the building came off and then the roof came off. And then it slowed down a little, tiny bit. I’m thinking ‘I know where we are, this is not over yet.’ And it wasn’t,” he recalls.
“It came back. We had just gotten out of the eye of it. It was worse than before. I think I screamed a couple times. ‘Okay, take me. I’m ready.‘”
His wife and neighbor were doing Hail Marys.
“It got worse and it got worse. I figured I was dead, we were all going to die,” he said.
When the second wave came around, most of the building was gone, making them exposed to the elements. Humphrey’s scalp became embedded with pebbles.
“It finally let up. We’re all just standing there. The really weird part about it was that baby never made a sound… I didn’t really know what to do at that point,” he said.
Humphrey managed to exit the building to observe the aftermath.
“I think that was the only time I really just broke down. Because I saw the front of the building, and there was a big thing of water shooting out and the place was just destroyed. Completely destroyed… I just stood there in the Dillon’s parking lot and cried. But I had to stop,” he said.
He went back to the apartment complex and got his wife, neighbor and her child out of the building.
By the end of the day, Humphrey and his wife made it to the former Memorial High School where they spent the night in the gym. For the next few weeks, they stayed with Humphrey’s daughter. Then, they ended up finding permanent residency at an artist loft owned by his daughter’s landlord.
Although traumatizing, the tornado was a pivotal moment in Humphrey’s life.
“You don’t ever want to have that kind of experience, but years later I’m thankful that I did because it changed so many things in my life,” said Humphrey.
He stopped doing drugs and drinking, and learned how to forgive himself and others. Now, he’s making up for what he wasn’t doing before the tornado.
In ten years, this was the one of the only times Humphrey has told his story.
“I’ve never really told anybody this before. It’s a little more difficult than I thought it would be… I’m glad I did. I needed to get that out of my system,” he said.
Judy Miller was at St. John’s hospital with her husband and their daughter Julie, who was an inpatient, on that seemingly normal Sunday afternoon. When the tornado warning began, hospital staff moved Julie, who was typically in a wheelchair, into the hallway on a hospital bed.
“All of a sudden, it sounded like a bomb hit that building. It was just this huge blast and when it happened, all of those doors flew open to the patient rooms and all of those windows blew out. It was like a wind tunnel,” said Miller.
Judy’s husband, afraid that Julie’s bed would flip over, stood on it and held on. But the wind began to pull Julie out of her bed.
“He was up over her in the bed, holding onto each side of her bed. It began pulling them down the hallway toward the end of the hallway where the windows were gone. It pulled them probably 15, 20 feet,” she recalls.
Suddenly, the tornado stopped. But it was far from over.
“Here it comes again. It just seemed like it went on forever. When it was over, we looked around and it looked like a bomb had gone off in the middle of that building,” she said.
Miller saw nearby patients who were impaled by pieces of the building, had broken legs, head injuries and more.
“Honestly, I have to say that the hand of God was right over us because we were not hurt at all. Not a scratch, not a bruise, nothing. Everyone around us was injured,” said Miller.
They waited for help to come… Julie told her mother to listen.
“‘I don’t hear anything,'” Miller responded.
“‘Exactly,'” said Julie. “‘Mom, there are no sirens… Nobody’s coming.'”
They began to smell smoke. They transferred Julie to a chair and started moving debris out of the way. When they got to the stairwell, they couldn’t get through the jammed door. Two nurses and Judy’s husband kicked and banged on the door until it opened.
“When we first got outside, everything, all of the vehicles, the whole building, everything was just black. I mean, just black,” she said.
Eventually, they arrived where their home once stood.
“There was nothing left. Nothing. It was just gone,” said Miller.
“You don’t forget it. It really changes you. It really teaches you what matters… Things that used to seem really important, just don’t matter anymore,” she said.
The tornado’s ten-year anniversary is bringing up a lot of memories for Miller.
“That innocence is gone. How you like to stand out and watch the rain and thunderstorms, we don’t do that anymore,” she cried.
But Miller will never forget the help from others her family received during this difficult time.
“Almost everyone we knew came to help, but there were lots of people that we had never seen before and have never seen since… There are so many good people,” she said.