An Inability To Tell Too Much: Joplin Tornado Timeline

It should’ve been someone else.  Under normal circumstances, someone else would’ve been working.  Then again, I suppose there was nothing normal about Sunday night.

I started this blog mostly because I felt there were things I saw, heard, or experienced that warranted sharing.  Things I didn’t have time to say on air.

As an EF-5 tornado landed a direct hit on the southern third of Joplin, Missouri, the sheer volume of devastating sight after mind-blowing quote after nose-wrinkling smell defined sensory overload.

So many people have asked me what it was like to be on the ground just a couple of hours after the Joplin tornado cut a half-mile to mile-wide path through a city I knew in name only prior to Sunday.  I come away from every conversation feeling somehow guilty, like I didn’t do the description justice or I forgot something.

I figured a timeline might help.  If I can document where I was and what I saw hour-by-hour Sunday and Monday, maybe I won’t feel like someone’s story got lost in the rubble.

THE KMBC TEAM IN JOPLIN (IN ORDER OF ARRIVAL)

Taka Yokoyama, photojournalist (paired with me for 31 hours straight)
Todd Ummelmann, photojournalist
Lisa Teachman, meteorologist
Kyle Rupe, engineer & satellite truck operator
Erin Moynihan, field producer
Neeley Schmitz, photojournalist
Kris Ketz, field anchor
Las Abalos, photojournalist
Diane Cho, reporter
Michelle Rooney, reporter
Lara Moritz, reporter and field anchor
John Woods, photojournalist
Jim Rupe, engineer & satellite truck operator

THE TIMELINE

–5:00 p.m. Sunday, May 22nd

Taka and I spend the half-hour newscast streaming video live through our cell phones from Clinton, the location of an early evening tornado warning in west central Missouri.

Our real story hits 30 minutes later.

–5:45 p.m.

“Start heading towards Joplin.”

Our assistant news director, George Matz, has that tone in his voice like something is genuinely bad.  However, he says there are unconfirmed reports a hospital in Joplin suffered a direct hit from a massive tornado, and I know that’s surely exaggerated.

News crews learn to tell legitimate, big stories from over-eager hearsay.

I’m wrong.

–6:30 p.m.

I see and post a picture from The Weather Channel of what will become the symbol of the Joplin tornado, St. John’s Regional Medical Center.  In less than three hours, a Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper will explain to me the hospital’s top two floors are gone.

This is when Taka and I knew it was bad. We still didn't understand.

–7:45 p.m.

“How bad is it?!”

As we pull into a Joplin gas station on the north side of town, they swarm us.  We’re driving a marked KMBC car, and I’m wearing a Channel 9 polo.  Everyone filling up their cars thinks I know the totality of the devastation.  I’m a reporter.  Why wouldn’t I?

First, a girl suffering a broken hand from flying debris asks.  She and her grandparents are headed to a hospital in Pittsburg, Kansas, because the hospital in Joplin that would normally help her is crippled.

Then, a woman asks the question.  I explain we only just arrived in town and ask if she’s okay.  She shakes her head no and says her house is gone.  I’ll never fully understand why someone who lost their home asked me how extensive the damage was.  I guess they wanted something, anything firm to grasp.  The unknown is slippery.  You can’t control the unknown.

They couldn’t control that gray, swirling monster that took away everything.

–8:15 p.m.

“Right there!  I’m parking right there.”

Taka and I just spent a half hour trying to reach the devastation of the hospital.  We came from the north to avoid debris and impassable roads, but a tornado this size creates such things in every direction.  I park our news Jeep behind a senior center at 22nd & Jackson, a mile away from the hospital.

Two blocks to the east, a house fire rages.  Something sparked a natural gas leak, and fire crews haven’t been able to arrive on scene yet.  Such leaks will cause several fires throughout this first night.

I begin trying to call the crews following us (Todd, Lisa, and Kyle) to tell them where we are, but the one nearby cell tower is overwhelmed.  The only things getting through are texts.

–8:30 p.m.

Taka and I begin walking.

To reach the worst damage, we have to walk south to the center of where the tornado hit.  We’ll be on air in just over an hour.

The scene is legitimately scary.  As a reporter, I’ve learned in general what to be scared of, and a truly scary scene is rare.

The city reeks of natural gas, and almost every house we walk by has a pipeline hissing.  The fully-engulfed house to our east comes back to my mind.

A man pulls up alongside us.  He says he’s a St. John’s Hospital employee, and he wants to know how to get to the hospital so he can help.  I tell him he’ll likely have to walk, but I haven’t tried driving in myself yet.  He thanks Taka and I and drives off.

Another woman walks up asking me to contact police.  Once again, citizens think the reporter has a direct link to who they need.  She explains there’s a man dead in a white car a few blocks to the southwest.  He apparently tried to beat the storm, and she’s covered his body with a sheet.

At one point, Taka slips in the mud as we cross through a yard.  In true photographer form, he twists his body taking the full weight of the fall on his forearm and hind end to save our camera.  Luckily, he hasn’t fallen onto one of the rusty nails reaching up from the debris in every direction I look.  After I covered the Greensburg tornado (the first ever EF-5), the first responders told me nails flattened countless tires of emergency vehicles and hampered search and rescue efforts.  I suspect that’ll be the case in Joplin, too.

There’s still just enough light for Taka to shoot several jaw-dropping scenes, and we both have an idea of what the city will look like come Monday’s sunrise.

As we walk alongside two Joplin police officers, one says, “Tell everyone if you don’t have business south of 20th Street, stay out!”

For anyone unfamiliar with Joplin, this officer has just explained the southern third of the city is demolished.

–9:00 p.m.

Taka and I split up.

I’ll admit this was a risky move, and I don’t know that I’d make it again.

We’ve made it south to 26th Street, and I can see St. John’s a half mile to our west.  I want to get some kind of damage report from the hospital, and Taka assures me he knows the way back to our truck.

After jogging to the hospital, I see why this building will become the symbol of the Joplin tornado.  The top two floors are gone.  I don’t mean they’re severely damaged or destroyed.  I mean they’re gone.  Not a window frame on the building still holds glass, and many have sheets or debris dangling from them.  Eerily, from a single window on the upper east side of the building, I see a computer or TV screen still beaming bright blue.

A couple of police officers who pointed out the devastation of the upper floors tell me search and rescue is still active inside the hospital, but no one’s given them a death toll.

I begin jogging back to our truck at 22nd & Jackson with my cell phone providing the only light to negotiate debris.

A few minutes later, I pass a white car with a sheet draped over the driver’s side window.

–9:25 p.m.

I arrive back at 22nd & Jackson and am relieved to find Todd and Lisa waiting.  The walk back was nerve-wracking not just because of my surroundings, but because most all cell service was down and Taka and I had no guarantee our coworkers would find us.

Todd and Lisa look legitimately surprised when I tell them everything to the south of us is worse than our immediate surroundings.

Kyle arrives with the sat truck a few minutes later, and we begin feeding all of Taka’s raw video and interviews back to KMBC.  I later describe Taka as a “madman” to my bosses because of the pace he sets for himself the rest of the night.

–10:00 p.m.

The hour-long Sunday 10:00 p.m. newscast begins.  In general, I feel like I’m rambling on air because there’s so much to talk about.  I tell producers to encourage the anchors to ask me questions because I’m surely forgetting something as I talk about the previous two-plus hours.

In between live shots, a man walks by our sat truck.  I ask Johnie Ward what he’s been doing since the tornado hit, and he says he’s gone from friend’s house to friend’s house checking on people.

In between live shots, Todd and I shoot an interview with Johnie.  He says he watched from a couple of miles away as the tornado ripped through.

Johnie says, “You wouldn’t want to be standing anywhere here when it hit unless you’re close to God.”

–11:00 p.m.

With the 10:00 show over, the five of us regroup.  Todd and Lisa (who’ve been working since Sunday morning) will go to the hotel rooms the station booked and get a couple of hours sleep so they can be ready for the morning show.  Taka and I will keep turning stories through the night, and Kyle will stay with us and the sat truck.

We speak to one woman who moved to Joplin from New Orleans after surviving Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The Tiffany lamp sitting in her demolished living room was one of the only belongings to survive the hurricane, and it narrowly missed being smashed by a collapsed roof tonight.  She’s uninjured, and the lamp has suddenly become an unlikely symbol of why she feels so lucky.

We follow Jasper County Sheriff’s deputies knocking door-to-door looking for survivors.  Every time they find one, they give obvious sighs of relief or shout (I’m not kidding, shout), “Excellent!”

Each home where residents are safe and accounted for are marked with orange X’s.  Not every home gets one.

–2:30 a.m. Monday, May 23rd

The morning crew of Erin, Kris, and Neeley arrives.  Once again, it’s nice to have more people.

The tornado tossed cars around like wadded up pieces of paper. This is in front of St. John's.

Kris and Neeley successfully find a path to St. John’s, and we move the sat truck.

–4:30 a.m.

Morning show begins.  Kris field anchors, and I front one of the stories Taka and I turned every 15 mintues.

Kris and I reporting for the morning show.

–5:30 a.m.

“There are 89 confirmed dead.”

For the first time in nearly 12 hours, I take a moment.  Joplin city officials had called a press conference across the street from St. John’s to discuss search and rescue efforts, and that one simple number makes all of us realize what (or who) is in the rubble all around us.

Sunrise in Joplin. We've just learned the overnight death toll.

All morning, we’d heard things like “it’s feared at least two dozen are dead” or “Joplin’s death toll may top 30.”  If that was what we feared, what is this?

Moreover, if that’s the toll after just 12 hours, what will it be after a full day?  In a week?

The officials announce other news and stats.  Fire Chief Mitch Randles is among the residents with a demolished home.  Four hundred personnel are already in the city trying to help.  Two thousand buildings are destroyed (a total that eventually reaches 8,000).

City manager Mark Rohr, the same man who announced the death toll, says, “We will recover, and we will come back stronger than we are today.”

Everyone is still thinking about the number.

–8:30 a.m.

A new storm has moved in.  With 30 minutes left in our morning show, Kyle brings the sat truck’s dish down.  We won’t risk a lightning strike in this weather.

Most media leaves St. John’s as a wall cloud moves in.  Rain and hail pelt Joplin and hamper search and rescue crews most of the morning.

A wall cloud towers over St. John's Hospital at 8:30 a.m. Monday, just 15 hours after the tornado hit.

–11:00 a.m.

Taka and I have been told we’re staying in Joplin through the afternoon, so we try to catch some sleep in the front seats of our news Jeep.  It’s a waste of time.  Every small noise outside the truck for the next hour jolts us into sitting straight up.  Apparently, the adrenaline hasn’t fully waned.

–12:30 p.m.

We move east through town.  Day One will be all about search and rescue.

At 26th & Picher, Taka and I spot several firefighters digging through the basement of what used to be a house.  This is a rare sight since so few of the homes in Joplin have basements.

The basement at 26th & Picher.

Five firefighters are focused on this house because they just found two dogs in the basement alive.  They hope the owners are also in here somewhere, simply trapped and waiting for help.

Donnie Johnson’s friends stand around the foundation of his home watching the firefighters dig.  No one has heard from Donnie or his parents since the tornado hit.

“I’ve got four friends that’s lost their homes in this area,” Wade Phillips says through tears.  “They’re all alright.  This is the only one I can’t find or get ahold of.  Aww, hell.  This is horrible.”

Rescue dogs from Tulsa sniff the wreckage, but do not indicate a body.

This is the difficult part about search and rescue.  Search is guaranteed.  Rescue is not.

One firefighter asks me what the death toll was at last count.  I give him the number.  He asks when it was announced.  I tell him seven hours ago.

“We’ve seen more since then,” he says.

–2:00 p.m.

Just about everyone is here now.

From now through 6:00, crews write and edit our stories.  This isn’t easy because you have so many reporter/photographer teams trying to turn stories on a limited number of editors.  Hearst (our owner) has also sent in crews from Oklahoma City and Des Moines to shoot stories for all of our sister stations.

The team (or at least, some of us). Woodsie in the salmon(?) polo, Diane in red, Michelle in blue, and Lara in white. The photog to the far left is from our Des Moines sister station, KCCI.

Rain is relentless throughout the afternoon, and lightning causes us to drop the sat truck dish multiple times.  There will be times during our 5:00 and 6:00 newscasts we can’t go live because of these new storms.

One bolt hits so close that John Woods and I both say we feel tingling in our fingertips.

Lightning from this same system strikes Riverside Police Officer Jeff Taylor.  The 31-year-old officer was part of a 12-member team from the Kansas City suburb to respond to Joplin.  Officer Taylor will hold on for 11 days in critical condition at a Springfield hospital before passing.

–3:00 p.m.

Another press conference.  City officials say the death toll is now at 116.

I wasn’t the reporter who covered this announcement for us, so I don’t have many details except to say the firefighter was right.

–5:30 p.m.

In between newscasts, movement across the street catches my eye.

I look to the east to see the same demolished car that sat unmoving all day.   Its windshield wipers are moving.

–6:30 p.m.

Taka and I have the go ahead to call it a day.

We have the option of driving home tonight or getting a hotel room in Springfield and driving back in the morning (at 75 miles, Springfield is still the closest city with hotel vacancies).

We each grab two Mountain Dews and begin the drive north.  Taka and I have both been awake for 31 hours straight at this point, but we can’t stop talking about what we’ve seen.

As we near the station in Kansas City, I ask Taka how this compared to the Japanese earthquake from March.  Taka, a native of Japan, flew home shortly after that natural disaster and filmed Kansas City natives in the U.S. Armed Forces trying to help earthquake victims.

“At least after the earthquake, I could tell what things were,” says Taka.  “This is a house, this is a business, and so on.  I can’t tell what anything is in Joplin.”

–10:00 p.m.

I get home just in time to turn on the 10:00 news and watch what my coworkers managed to find in the hours since I left.  As usual, their work is outstanding and I’ll take time the next day to ask how they found these stories.

After the newscast, I let out a little frustration.

–10:35 p.m.

The new Good Morning America anchor, Josh Elliott, does a live shot for a special edition of Nightline.  The field anchor asks Elliott if there’s any way to sum up what he saw Monday, and Elliott answers with “a relentless sense of perspective.”

None of the KMBC crews complained about long hours or miserable conditions, and I’m reminded why as I listen to those words and sit on my couch surrounded by walls and a roof.

I agreed to come to work 35 hours ago.  It’s a day off I’ll never forget.

*Even going hour-by-hour, I’m sure there’s something in here I’ve missed.  As I continue to recollect my time in Joplin and talk with coworkers who were on the ground, I’ll surely add to this timeline.

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22 Responses to “An Inability To Tell Too Much: Joplin Tornado Timeline”

  1. Sherri Says:

    Great reporting, Cliff….I’m an American Red Cross volunteer out of Kansas City, and have been on the ground here in Joplin since Wednesday. As you said, it’s almost beyond comprehension – the damage is incredible and heartbreaking. But true to our Midwestern spirit, the people of Joplin will get through this and will survive. Thanks for your dedication and hard work on getting the story out.

  2. Sherri Says:

    Meant to add – THIS link is the correct one to my own blog, where I’ve been documenting some of my experiences here in Joplin. Thanks!

  3. Jen Reeves Says:

    Thanks Cliff. Your honest perspective is worth sharing with many people. Thanks for your hard work.

  4. Leah Stephens Says:

    thanks for sharing this. I will put a link to this on my blog.

  5. News from the ‘Net | #jenclass Says:

    […] a summary of how newspapers covered the Joplin disaster. Former KOMUer, Cliff Judy, wrote this great blog post about his Joplin […]

  6. Kari Says:

    Thank you Cliff. I am here in Kansas City and have wanted to drive down to Joplin to see if there is any way that I can help. I have such compassion for these people and it breaks my heart. I know that no one can really understand the total devastation unless you were in it or saw it with your own eyes. Your blog really tells the story well. I hope that people don’t forget about Joplin and the victims. I’d like to document how the families in this community rebuild their lives. This is when they will really need help and support, for who knows how long. Let’s not forget about them when the next big story happens (ie CNN)- I want people to see how hard this is really going to be for them to rebuild their lives and community- it will be so hard, but I hope they keep the faith and work together to get this done. Wow. What a tough job ahead of them. I wish I could take off down there and help any way possible.

  7. Amanda F. Says:

    Cliff, thanks for the behind the scenes of this great tragedy. I live in KC and we had a scare here a couple of days later. All I could think of were prayers for the people of Joplin. I survived a series of tornados that devestated Alabama when I was a child and I will never forget how surreal it all looked afterwards. The trees tossed like toothpicks, the cars upside down and the neighbors houses…gone. And I was only a kid.
    I also appreciate this blog because it humanizes the work that you reporters and photographers do. It’s easy to criticize the “media” but we need to support them and thank them for helping us to know what we can do to help others or even avoid some situations. As a former 911 dispatcher and law enforcement worker..I can empathize with that feeling that everyone wants information from you and you don’t always have it for them. It can be a very helpless feeling. I will continue to wait and hear what Joplin needs from its Missouri neighbors. I hope to be of some help to those brave folks. Thanks again, you’ve opened my eyes and touched my heart. Kudos to Taka as well.

  8. Carrie Waddell Says:

    Thanks to all of you in Kansas City and KMBC news. We are all heart broken that our city is is ruins but greatful for all the help we have recieved from outside our city. We will rebuild and be better than ever. If there is something people want to do for us they can mark 4 months from now on their calendar and remember we are still needing your assistance. We love you all and cant wait to send you pictures when we start rebuilding.

  9. jean harris Says:

    Very good reporting, Cliff. This past weekend, I was able to spend some time with my granddaughter, who just graduated from MSSU. She has lived in Joplin all four years of college. I heard the stories of the tornado from a little different angle. She and her friends were not in the direct path of the tornado, but spent several harrowing moments in a storm cellar. After the tornado had blown through, her boyfriend and several other of the men went out to see what they could do to help. They were pulling debris away from everything, hoping to find someone alive. They were not so lucky with some of their finds. These men spent the whole week going around Joplin with a chain saw. They first cut trees out of the streets, so emergency crews could get though. They cut trees until there was no more to cut. Yes, there were a lot of heroes during and after the storm and they just keep coming.

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  11. laura potts Says:

    Thank you for the timeline. Six months later I’m still trying to wrap my mind around everything I saw that night while rescuing my family.

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  22. The Day A Bunch Of 80-Year-Olds Wore Me Out « Cliff's Notes Says:

    […] Also assigned to the trip was Taka Yokoyama, the accomplished photojournalist paired with me for 31 hours straight on the night of the Joplin Tornado. […]

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