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In Joplin, tornado-ravaged house is one family's testament

May 22, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Matt Pearce / For The Times
Matt Pearce / For The Times (m4fsdmpd20120522112920/600 )

JOPLIN, Mo. -- Almost two weeks ago, Yvonne Goodman visited her family's former home and shook her head at what she saw: windows boarded up, roof scalped away, some of the siding still splattered with the spray of mud that the tornado carried here from God-knows-where.

“We did a lot of living in this house,” said Goodman, 70. She looked down at a flower pot by the back door with big green stalks shooting out of it. “I can’t believe it! You know what this is? Mint.” She planted it five years ago; hard to believe it’s still alive.

The slender stalks in the planter looked a bit like the trees around Joplin whose limbs were amputated by the storm’s winds and which now stand tall and thin and horrifically scarred — but still alive and leafing out. A year after the storm, life has carried on.

Photos: Tornadoes plague the Midwest (2011)

Yet Goodman’s home still faces destruction as officials and the family wrestle over whether the storm’s blow to the house has been a fatal one.

In any other town, the property at 2725 S. Schifferdecker Ave. would be beautiful, but it's in Joplin, so you have to talk about it in the past tense. There used to be a lot more trees around the pond out front, and there used to be a roof on the house, and there used to be a man living in it, a husband and father named J.T. Goodman.

The story of his death and the tenuous survival of his home is just one of many in Joplin. A massive tornado struck here a year ago Tuesday, damaging or destroying roughly 8,000 buildings in the span of a few minutes.

Satellite images of Joplin, Mo. before and after the tornado

Today, the city's collective recovery is being won — and lost — month by month, family by family, home by home.

The Goodman house remains in ruins and is one among many on a city demolition list as Joplin tries to clear away the final barren remnants of the storm. But for Yvonne Goodman and her son, firefighter Walt “Ray” Goodman, the home’s preservation has become his tribute to the memory of his father.

Walt Goodman, 37, looks like Ron Swanson from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” but with a shaved head instead of the cartoonish pompadour. He’s keeping the mustache until he figures out what to do with the house, even though he thinks it looks dumb without a beard.

He's a rescue specialist with Missouri Task Force 1, an elite rescue squad based out of Columbia that usually shows up anyplace where bad has gone to worse. Last May, bad news brought him to his hometown, where Missouri Task Force 1 handled some of the most gruesome recovery efforts from the devastating tornado. After more than a day of strenuous search-and-rescue work, Walt Goodman finally made his way to his boyhood home.

It was night, and another search team had told him that the area had been cleared of survivors. But when Walt Goodman got close to his house, a flashlight flicked on from the porch.

“Can I help you?” a stern voice called out.

It was his 75-year-old father, wearing a boonie hat and holding a shotgun. J.T. Goodman was guarding the homestead against the rain and the looters.

J.T. Goodman had set up buckets all over the house where water was dripping down through the fixtures, and he was shuttling the buckets outside and dumping them out “like Mickey Mouse in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' ” as Walt Goodman put it.

Resiliency was a hallmark of J.T. Goodman’s character, and it may have been his downfall. After the storm, J.T. Goodman went to work on the moldy and mildewing house right away — every day, his son said — only to later become a casualty himself.

"I couldn't get him to wear a mask," Yvonne Goodman said of her husband. "And that's what killed him."

The most commonly cited figure for the number killed in the Joplin tornado is 161, a number oft-revised in the days and weeks after the storm. But that number does not include J.T. Goodman.

The family still doesn't know what precisely caused the breathing problems that first put him in the hospital a month after the tornado, though they know it was the three bouts of pneumonia that helped kill him on Aug. 16. Still, they didn't need to be told where to point fingers.

"There's no question of mine that Dad is a tornado victim," said Walt Goodman, who stayed by his father's side until his death; he’d decorated the hospital room’s walls with cartoons he'd drawn of his father as a comic-book hero escaping the hospital. "I think he deserves to be recognized historically as part of that number."

In December, city officials told the Goodmans that they needed to fix up their ruined home or the city would bulldoze it. As it had for many fellow survivors in Joplin, time -- as well as the recovery that came with it --  was moving ahead too fast for the Goodmans to keep up.

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