Scholar Charles Pulliam: Telling a Tornado Tale in Joplin

Greg Hailey removes salvageable belongings from his car in Joplin, Mo. Hailey’s vehicle was hurled some 100 yards by the May 22nd tornado which claimed the lives of more than 140 people in the town of about 50,000. Photo by Charles Pulliam

Timelapse and audio slideshows produced by Charles Pulliam while reporting in Joplin

By Charles Pulliam

Sirens still sounded constantly when I arrived. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles sped past and over down power lines and tree branches. Numb to the noise, survivors sifting what was left of their homes didn’t even give the piercing sounds a second thought.

Residents in Joplin, Mo., witnessed one of the deadliest tornadoes on record. It took the lives of more than 130 people and destroyed nearly one-third of the city. Buildings were scooped away at their foundations, cars were crumpled like wads of paper and huge oak and elm trees were stripped bare if not uprooted and flung in all directions.

Using my iPhone and Canon 40D along with two audio recorders, I documented disaster. I experimented with mobile media and was active on Twitter and Facebook with updates.
I arrived about 36 hours after the tornado tore through the southwestern Missouri town of about 50,000. I first met Danny and Myra Martinez and watched as they surveyed the remains of their home.

Only a closet was left standing. Living room walls were ripped away, sheared from the foundation. Nails and screws, bent and headless, had anchored the walls, and splintered wood stabbed through three black couches speckled with insulation and other debris. Myra sobbed at the sight.

The pair survived with their three children in a black Lincoln Navigator, a large SUV. They were driving home from a son’s high school graduation party when the twister crossed East 20th Street about 100 yards in front of them. Later, their voices quivered as they spoke about a similar-sized truck that was swept up and hurled out of sight in an instant.

Voices of Joplin’s Survivors from Freedom Forum Diversity on Vimeo.

“It happened so fast,” Myra recalled, shaking her head. “We didn’t know where it went. It just threw it.”

Danny quickly maneuvered the Navigator into a one-story garage next to Dillons grocery off Kansas Avenue. The roof collapsed moments later, pinning the vehicle. The back of the Navigator, exposed to the powerful winds and just beyond reach of the twister’s clutches, survived with dents and scuffs.

The tornado “couldn’t get a good enough grip, but it was trying to suck us out and the car was moving like this,” Danny said, swiveling his hand to show how the Navigator was moving. “I can’t believe we were in it. The buzzing sound is the ugliest sound you can hear.”

Stories like this echoed throughout my time in Joplin.

Darian and Shelli Holtsman and their 14-year-old son survived as their one-story house on Indiana Avenue crumbled around them. Darian and his family laid under a mattress in the hallway. Sections of walls and roof crashed down as the tornado passed, but in a few chaotic minutes neighbors dug them out from under the shielding mattress.

Kelvin Baker and Susi Hurn jumped into Hurn’s bathtub moments before the twister peeled back the roof of her apartment complex.

“I remember looking at Kelvin and thinking I was about to die,” Hurn said. “I looked at him and said, ‘I love you,’ thinking those would be my last words. But it wasn’t our time.”

In another area of town, Baker’s home was also completely destroyed. He said the trauma will stay with him for life.

“I still can close my eyes and hear the wood splitting,” Baker said, clenching his fists. “I jerk. It’s not a memory because with every bang I relive it.”

Hearing such stories helped survivors. In the aftermath, the people of Joplin shared tales of survival because so many had miracles to describe. Folks digging through rubble often approached me as I walked by with my camera gear.

This was extremely rewarding but simultaneously terrifying. I had driven more than 500 miles from Nashville on a whim to see the aftermath of a tornado. I expected traumatic encounters and flowing emotions and was overwhelmed as survivors sought me out and told me very personal stories filled with emotion.

My journalistic instincts remained constant in the disaster zone. I listened. I took notes. I created images and captured audio. I was respectful and ethical. I maintained a journalistic identity, knowing I would contribute to the coverage but not aware survivors would make such personal connections with me.

Each night, despite many stories to share, I could only stare numbly at my computer. Stories I could depict about raw emotion and chaotic destruction were great multimedia, but I couldn’t begin. I had to step away and recharge.

The weight of information gathered in three days of reporting had drained me. I was becoming emotionally connected, jeopardizing my credibility. Perhaps I’ll return to Joplin. I hope my words and images won’t be forgotten.