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In Joplin, threat of more tornadoes keeps residents on edge

Once-ignored tornado sirens are now getting the attention of Joplin residents. After Sunday's historically ferocious twister, they weren't taking any chances.

May 25, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Kim Murphy and Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Connie Jacobs is consoled by volunteers in front of her home in Joplin, Mo., which was destroyed by Sunday's tornado. At least 125 people were killed in the storm.
Connie Jacobs is consoled by volunteers in front of her home in Joplin, Mo.,… (Eric Thayer / Reuters )

Reporting from Joplin, Mo., Catoosa, Okla., — The tornado sirens sounded about 9:30 p.m., prompting a stampede through the hallways of Joplin's Hilton Garden Inn.

"You're going to go through a lot of these in your life," a man told his adolescent son, who was trembling with fear, as they sought refuge Tuesday night.

"I'm not living in Joplin," the boy spat back.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin

Not long ago, tornado sirens would have elicited a blase response here: a shrug, a glance at the sky. But something — actually, almost everything — changed in Joplin on Sunday night, when a twister of historic ferocity gouged a path of destruction through the heart of this southwestern Missouri town.

People are paying attention now.

The storm left at least 125 dead and 900 injured, but that hasn't been the end of Joplin's misery. The weather has remained unsettled — rain and wind and the ever-present threat of more tornadoes. The warnings, the sirens, the glowering sky have left people jittery, off balance, and have complicated recovery efforts.

The Garden Inn is filled with the newly homeless, and the sirens Tuesday night were met with a response that was one part prudence, one part panic. These were people who had seen many a tornado, but no one was taking any chances.

Guests and workers alike bolted into a service hallway on the first floor. People found plastic chairs for the elderly. Faces were drawn. Smartphones came out, and people used them to watch the storm inch toward town.

The first storm cell passed harmlessly overhead. But a second, bigger one was bearing down. The sirens blew again about 10 p.m.

"This is just nuts," said Christy Simpson, 40.

Jan Goswick, 61, wondered if Joplin was cursed. "Tell us what we did wrong," she quipped, "and we'll stop."

The second cell passed, also without incident. Radio broadcasts reported that the local emergency management office had used extra caution in sounding the second alert, because it feared winds of up to 75 mph could blow about debris from Sunday's storm. People sighed in relief and filtered back out into the lobby or back to their rooms.

This is what life has been like in Joplin the last few days, recalling, in a way, World War II images of the London blitz: Sirens blowing; people scattering purposefully to shelters; ears pricked for sounds of destruction. When the danger ebbs, they trudge back, wondering what mayhem might await.

Although Joplin has been hit the hardest, the message seems to have spread throughout the surrounding, tornado-prone region.

In Catoosa, a small town on U.S. 66 just east of Tulsa, sirens went off Tuesday night as winds approached 70 mph. No funnel clouds were spotted, but residents streamed into basements and storm cellars.

Kaylena White, 21, who lives in a small mobile home park that was badly damaged when a tornado hit Catoosa in 1993, had scooped up her two children and driven to her mother-in-law's house in south Tulsa several hours earlier. "I've lived here since I was 9 or 10. They've never been that bad," she said. "They used to just show up and then go away, and never hit. Now they're hitting and destroying everything. It's scary."

Eddie Michels, who owns a small manufacturing company that makes steel-plate safe rooms, said orders had multiplied since Sunday's tornado in Joplin. On Tuesday, workers rushed to install two new rooms in advance of the coming storms.

"Fifty percent of our sales normally come from people who move in from out of state. Well, I'm getting calls from Oklahomans now," Michels said. "I'm a guy that knows about this, studies it. But with what happened in Joplin, I had a fear factor, I'm not going to lie to you. It scared the crap out of me, it really did."

The trauma of the Joplin tornado affected people in different ways. Some remained nonchalant.

"I wasn't afraid during the tornado," said Marie Estes, who recounted how a chair blew onto her head as she stood in the hallway of the red brick home where she has lived since 1958. The chair blocked a spray of sheetrock and glass from striking her face.

Leaning on a cane in front of the rubble of her home, she insisted she was untroubled by what fate could bring.

"Right now, I'm 72 years old," she said. "I have three children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. What more could you ask for?"

Others seemed deeply disturbed by their experiences.

James Lang, 21, came to a Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern State University with his family, including his mother and grandmother. On Wednesday, as his 2-year-old son dozed on a nearby cot, Lang couldn't stop talking about what he had seen the night of the tornado — severed body parts, dead infants, mortally wounded neighbors. Speaking in animated tones, he returned again and again to the grisly details.

Finally, his grandmother, Letha Potts, cut him off. "This is why I want you to talk to one of these counselors," she said.

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