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Volunteer reunites Joplin's victims with tornado-scattered photos

Abi Almandinger has been collecting personal photos blown for miles by the Joplin, Mo., tornado and posting them on a Facebook page to help their owners find them.

May 27, 2011|By Matt Pearce, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Abi Almandinger, 38, is collecting personal photos and papers widely scattered during the tornado in Joplin, Mo., and posting them on Facebook to help their owners recover them.
Abi Almandinger, 38, is collecting personal photos and papers widely scattered… (Matt Pearce, For The Times )

Reporting from Joplin, Mo.

On Friday morning in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Abi Almandinger was running perhaps the most peculiar search-and-rescue mission in town.

The 38-year-old Carthage, Mo., woman was looking not for victims, not for a wallet, purse or pet, but for strangers' lost photos and mementoes.

At Christ's Church, just a few blocks outside Joplin's disaster zone, pastor Tim Chambers gave Almandinger some things people had found on the church lawn, including a water-warped Polaroid of a young woman dated Christmas 1979 — and a wrinkled and yellowed discharge letter for Staff Sgt. Floyd E. Huff, dated Dec. 21, 1945, and signed by Harry S. Truman.

"They're here, but we didn't know what to do with them," Chambers said to Almandinger. "I'm glad there's a system in place."

Photos: Tornadoes plague the Midwest

For the storm survivors who have lost everything, insurance and federal aid money will soon pour in to help replace their smashed vehicles and the piles of tinder and brick that used to be their homes. But there's no safety net to replace the photos and souvenirs that fill up a life — the personal memorabilia that say what someone's done, where someone's been, who someone is.

Almandinger, a mother who works for a scrapbooking company, fell under the sway of the area's pervasive spirit of volunteerism and got an idea: Try to collect lost photos where they pop up, post scans of them online, and hope the owners see them.

The idea came to her as she was listening to a local radio station. A woman had called saying she'd found a stack of photos but didn't know what to do with them. "The guys on the radio suggested she hold on to them," Almandinger said, "and that's when I knew that that was how I could help."

She's since been offering aid via Facebook, phone calls and radio.

"I thought that would be a good fit for me in terms of helping," she said. "I have two kids at home and can't get on the front lines." But compiling photos, helping people organize their memories — it's a natural fit for her.

Photos from Joplin reportedly have been discovered as far away as Springfield — about 70 miles to the east. People have already started uploading photos to Almandinger's Facebook page, called Joplin's Found Photos. That page and a similar one, Lost Photos of Joplin, MO Tornado, offer a scattershot portrait of the storm's collective victim: the city of Joplin, population 49,024.

Found, a school photo: the toothless smiles of Mrs. Lemstra's first-grade class, Thayer Elementary School, 1992-1993.

Found, a ticket stub: a good seat in Section 19 for a March 14, 2002, game between the L.A. Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. That night, the Cards win 4-1, with Jason Isringhausen picking up the save.

Found, a wrinkled black-and-white, stolen by the wind and dropped into a stranger's yard: a young woman in a dress relaxing in the grass, silhouetted gently against the light, sitting close to a smiling baby boy on some sunny day that must have passed more than half a century ago.

All can now be seen on the Joplin pages.

Similar efforts have also taken shape in the wake of the Tuscaloosa tornadoes.

In Joplin, this accumulation of strangers' photos on Facebook — a poetic, poignant blending of private histories into public ones — is quietly symbolic of the town. Joplin hadn't wanted to become synonymous with tragedy, but beneath a crush of wind, concrete, tears and headlines, it did.

The disaster has also exposed some hidden moments captured on camera.

Vicki Peterson, 51, a nurse who set up an emergency clinic at Wildwood Southern Baptist Church to treat the wounded after the storm, was walking along 20th Street when she found a picture of a man handcuffed to a bed, naked.

"I didn't know if it was something he was into or something criminal, so I turned it in to the police," she said. "Whoever he is, even if he is kind of weird, he probably doesn't want people to see that."

At least one connection had already been made on the Lost Photos of Joplin group: A woman recognized a warped and torn photo found on Brownell Avenue. "That's my family," she commented, adding "Thank you!!!!!"

Almandinger's Friday morning drive to pick up photos collected at local churches brought her into the disaster zone for the first time. "Oh my gosh," she gasped, covering her mouth as she spotted a friend's shattered house. "Oh my gosh."

"It's so strange to be so close to the damage and feel so removed from it, because I have a home that I can go back to," she said, as her 4-year-old son, Hank, read "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" in the back seat.

Almandinger, driving past the utility trucks and downed power lines and seemingly endless piles of debris, was expecting to receive more found photos in the mail soon — and to begin a new round of posting.

"They just keep posting pictures and calling," she said Friday. "I've talked to about 30 to 40 people by phone or text" since Thursday morning. "I'll be starting the process this evening, and getting them posted as soon as I can."

"My passion has always been to help people do something with their photos," she said. "Photos are always the one thing people want to take in an emergency."

Photos: Tornadoes plague the Midwest

Pearce is a special correspondent.

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