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'You never get over it.' Remembering the EF5 tornado that hit Joplin in 2011


Survivors of the recent Kentucky tornadoes are starting to rebuild, which can take many years or even decades. That is something that residents in Joplin, Mo., just a few hundred miles west, know firsthand. Over a decade ago, they were hit by one of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history. Frank Morris of our member station KCUR returned.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Lead and zinc mining built Joplin, Mo. Manufacturing and trucking sustained it. But a Sunday evening tornado, May of 2011, mowed down and chewed up fully a third of this largely working-class city. The storm took 161 lives and destroyed $3 billion worth of property. Visiting Joplin now, it's kind of hard to tell - that is, unless you know what to look for.

ASHLEY MICKLETHWAITE: If you're from here and you look out over the landscape, I still see the scars. And I see empty lots. And I know where people died.

MORRIS: Ashley Micklethwaite was president of Joplin School Board when the tornado struck. She's standing on a rise built on the wreckage of a hospital destroyed in that storm. Ten years ago, the view from here was heaps of crumpled, splintered rubble stretching for miles. Now it looks tidy, new buildings and small trees growing between stretches of open space. But Micklethwaite says even all these years later, the pain still remains fresh.

MICKLETHWAITE: You don't. You never get over it. It just gets less raw.

MORRIS: You have to understand the terror of that evening. Tiffany Stout, a human resources director here, narrowly survived. She was wedged in a hallway with her husband, Shane, and their two small children.

TIFFANY STOUT: It was almost instantly the roof came off of our house. And I could feel us coming off the ground, and Shane had his arms over the top of us trying to hold us down. You know, you kind of have an out-of-body experience. I remember hearing this awful screaming. And then I realized it was me screaming.

MORRIS: When she crawled from the wreckage covered in mud, splinters and insulation, her neighborhood as she knew it had vanished. Broken gas lines were hissing. Downed power lines were sparking. Her husband's shoulder was dislocated. Her dog was missing. Like more than 9,000 of her fellow citizens, she lost most of her belongings. Worse yet, she says, her children lost their innocence. Stout's daughter, Allie, was just 3 when the tornado struck. And like many children here, in the weeks following, she relived the storm over and over again. She called it playing tornado.


ALLIE STOUT: We spin around in circles, and we get in the house and we lie down. And it's blasting off, and we have to lie on the ground (ph).

MORRIS: Fast-forward 10 1/2 years, and the tiny girl caught in the imaginary whirlwind is now a confident, athletic 14-year-old. But Allie Stout says she still gets nervous when it's stormy, and she keeps her most important possessions close at hand.

ALLIE: My tornado bag is what I like to call it. And I have it right over here, so it's just this little backpack. And inside, I have my blanket that I liked to have when I was a kid, and then I have Pooh bear. He - those both two survived the tornado.

MORRIS: Tiffany Stout says it's easy to tell people who survived the tornado. They stick out when there's a tornado watch at work.

STOUT: You can look around the room when you're gathered there and know who's been through something like this because I know I have to talk to myself like, OK, breathe. You can't start crying. You can't freak out. And keep it together, and let's be logical.

MORRIS: Joplin psychiatrist Charles Graves calls her response normal and says that the old adage what doesn't kill you makes you stronger doesn't apply here. In fact, it's backwards. He says that trauma can make people more vulnerable.

CHARLES GRAVES: And so because this was such a massive trauma and so many people were exposed, that is an environmental hit to them.

MORRIS: Graves says that kind of environmental hit or shared trauma can show up in higher suicide and drug abuse rates. But he says there can also be an upside.

GRAVES: I think there's a psychological awareness across this community. There's an awareness that life is precious and short, and you control what you control, prepare for the future. And you don't have control over everything.

MORRIS: But that realization is hard-won. And Tiffany Stout says her heart aches for Mayfield tornado victims. She says she knows what they're in for.

STOUT: You know, you're scared, and you're thankful to be alive. And then in the days and the weeks and months that come where you're looking for things that you can't find and you realize, oh, that's gone - and then dealing with the insurance, finding a new home and then this - that fear. And there's anger, too.

MORRIS: Anger that can worsen as the recovery drags on because something as profound as a tornado doesn't heal itself in a year or two. In Joplin, it's taken a full decade, and some residents are healing still.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Joplin, Mo.