American Tragedy: The Hole in the Heart of Joplin

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Kyle and Alicia Gordon cry in the remains of their son's bedroom in Joplin, Mo., on May 24, 2011

Dark, boiling clouds on a May evening don't make much of an impression in the Midwest. They wreak havoc — but always down the road or in the next town or two counties away. Hollie Hounschell, 26, was getting ready to go to a party on May 22 as the clouds approached. With one ear on the TV as she painted her nails, she noted that big hail was falling in Webb City, some 8 miles (13 km) distant.

The doorbell rang. Hounschell's ex Joe Winters was delivering their daughter Abigail, who is 4, after a visit with her daddy. When Hollie opened the front door, she noticed lightning slash the sky far behind him.

Suddenly, the voice from the TV was shouting: "Take cover! Get to the basement!" Not everyone had a basement. Bewildered neighbors appeared at the door begging for help. In all, five people hurried down the hall and huddled in a tiny basement as wood splinters, shards of glass and needles of fiberglass insulation scoured the air. The house exploded. The neighborhood exploded.

Twenty-four hours later, as a chilly rain drenched the ruins of this southwestern Missouri town, Hounschell recalled struggling from the debris after the storm passed, teetering in her black dress and high heels. Emerging from the basement, she could see Joplin High School three blocks away, down the hill behind her house. That was new. Every manmade structure, every leaf on every tree that had obscured the view minutes earlier, was gone.

The idea of cleaning up Joplin seemed unimaginable. Across 3 sq. mi. (8 sq km) of wasteland — smashed and twisted cars, ripped and crumpled siding, shattered brick, muddy furniture, bed linens flapping from stripped and dying trees, gas-fed fires flickering — scattered people picked almost at random to fill boxes with soggy clothing, ruined electronics and woeful fragments of children's toys.

Perhaps a third of this city of 50,000 residents, a city that took decades to build, was unbuilt in a matter of moments by the killer tornado, which left at least 117 people dead and hundreds more injured. Clean up is a phrase that doesn't compute. In the coming weeks and months, Joplin will have to scrape bare a blasted hole in its heart.

Many hundreds of houses are gone. Restaurants, strip malls, grocery stores, drugstores, big-box outlets — gone. The high school is a wreck. St. John's Hospital is gutted. Power poles are snapped. Steel fence posts are bent flat to the ground. Thousands of cars are crumpled like soda cans. A forest of big, beautiful trees is uprooted, denuded.

On May 23, people spoke in whispers and left sentences half finished. Jim Winters, 51 — Joe's dad — kept telling the story of watching a stranger bleed to death after he and several other would-be rescuers lifted a wall that was pinning the man's body. "His skin just went white," he said. "I've watched a lot of horror movies, but ..." Jim's voice trailed off with a quick shake of his head.

What is there to say?

A small dresser of clothes survived, askew in the rubble of what used to be a bedroom. Joe Winters hoisted it and loaded it into a van. Hollie Hounschell regarded a cell-phone charger plucked from a mess of sodden plaster, then looked away.

May 24 dawned clear and sunny. Exhausted search teams trooped back into the ruins, hoping to complete their hunt for buried bodies, living and dead, "house by house, car by car, block by block," as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told NPR. The governor expected the death toll to rise, and he hoped the grim business could be finished before evening, when the clouds would boil up again.