Joplin Disaster coverage for Reuters America Wire

I’d been freelancing for Reuters America Wire a few months when they sent me to Joplin and the aftermath of an EF5 tornado. The storm killed 158 people as it ripped through the city in May 2011. My work required navigating a flattened, nervous city to quickly develop national wire stories on their recovery.

My plane in to the nearest airport beat a line on lingering storms forcing cancellations. I chatted up tow truck drivers and Red Cross organizers headed to help, scored the last rental car in Springfield, Missouri, and went to work describing a shell-shocked city to the rest of the country. Reuters editors left me to find what I could to file.

My stories focused first on the trauma in the city, where a roll of mild spring thunder triggered residents to call loved ones.

Find on (Note: I’m not sure why there’s a Reported By tag at the bottom of the story. It should have read Edited by).

Traumatized Joplin on edge as more storms rake Missouri

By Elliott Blackburn

JOPLIN, Mo | Wed May 25, 2011 6:28pm EDT

(Reuters) – Traumatized residents kept a wary eye on storm clouds hanging on Wednesday over the shredded remains of a large portion of this city.

Chainsaws and hammering could be heard in the neighborhoods surrounding the hardest hit areas three days after a devastating tornado ripped through this town of 50,000, killing 125 and injuring at least 823.

A neighbor looks for a friend’s home amid the rubble.

Residents took advantage of hours of sunlight to check their property and clear debris. But as adrenaline and shock faded, residents near the damaged zone described a fear of every rumbling in the wind.

Overnight, another wave of killer tornadoes roared across the Midwest, leaving at least nine people dead in Oklahoma, four dead in Arkansas and two in Kansas, officials said.

And on Wednesday, several fast-moving, strong storms raked Missouri, triggering tornado warnings all across the state.

Jerry Harris rode out 200 miles-per-hour winds with his daughter in a closet in his friend’s homes, which was all that remained of the residence after the storm passed.

The 42-year-old had years of training as a 911 dispatcher, he said, but felt panic the next morning when he heard the rumbling of a heavy truck.

“It just scared me to death,” Harris said.

Now, he is obsessed with having all his children around during storm warnings to assure himself they are safe.

Rick Rice, a 57-year-old truck driver, said he would never again dismiss the sirens he ignored Sunday. He had continued to remodel his bathroom as the tornado approached. The storm left his home uninhabitable.

Now he spends his day monitoring the Internet for weather updates haunted by the roaring of the wind.

“When I hear the noise, I can’t get it out of my mind,” Rice said.

Even residents who missed the worst of the storm changed habits. Greg Salzer, a 37-year-old social worker, watched the tornado from a safe distance. He and his wife restocked their storm shelter the next day with shoes, important papers and dog leashes.

“We spent Monday going through the storm shelter cleaning,” he said.

On Wednesday, he was helping his uncle, 66-year-old Frederick Dalton, clean debris not far from a ruined hospital.

Dalton said he had walked for blocks after the storm to find his wife safe at a destroyed church.

The Joplin tornado on Sunday was rated an EF-5, the highest possible on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado power and intensity, with winds of at least 200 miles per hour.

Grim practicalities followed as first responders began to get a handle on the number of casualties. The tornado devastated more than Joplin’s homes and buildings.


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Joplin prepares for grim task of funerals

By Elliott Blackburn

JOPLIN, Mo | Sat May 28, 2011 11:35pm EDT

(Reuters) – For some families, goodbye to victims of a powerful tornado that crushed buildings like twigs may only be a glimpse of a hand.

Traumatic injuries to the remains of the dead could force families to dispense with the tradition of a public viewing in this small Midwestern city. State officials said Saturday the temporary morgue in Joplin included partial remains.

The grim and daunting task facing the city’s three funeral homes, and some in surrounding communities, was preparing for memorial services and for burial or cremation of at least 139 victims.

“All we can do is take our time,” said David Dillon, a former owner of Thornhill-Dillon Mortuary.

A ruined home in the disaster zone.
A ruined home in the disaster zone.

The first funeral was in the nearby town of Galena, Kansas on Friday for 27-year-old electrician Adam Darnaby, remembered as an avid fisherman who liked fast cars.

The first services for victims in Joplin will begin on Monday, more than a week after the tragedy, according to Dennis Dreyer, the director of operations for Ozark Memorial Park, where many the dead will be buried.

The pace of the release of the dead has frustrated families anxious to recover loved ones and to move forward in their grief. Families of only 73 of the victims have been notified so far, because officials are following a painstaking process of identification to avoid mistakes.

Lindy Molina drove in from Irving, Texas to try and find her sister and nephew. She found the nine-year-old boy safe, but neighbors said her sister, Melissa Crossley, had died protecting him from the flying debris. Molina brought pictures and tattoo references to the temporary morgue in Joplin, but had no success.

“I personally do understand the process,” Molina said. “But it is frustrating.”

While the slow release of remains has been stressful for families, it gave the funeral homes, churches and cemeteries time to prepare.

Funeral homes here have worked to pull in resources from four states to handle services for victims. They expect the state of Missouri to release remains to families at a rate of 14 to 16 a day.

A small army of part-time and former workers and volunteers will help. Anything the memorial services needed — from cars to caskets to embalming materials — were offered by the Missouri state funeral home association and from colleagues in Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, funeral directors said.

Funeral homes were ready to offer private viewings, when possible, for families still wishing to say goodbye to badly damaged remains, said Tom Keckley, co-owner of Parker Mortuary & Crematory in Joplin. Medical bandages and terry cloth could cover severe injuries, he said.

“It might be looking at a hand that’s exposed while other parts are covered, but anything that will let that person know that that is their loved one,” Keckley said. “So that they accept it and can begin to heal.”

Even for funeral home staff accustomed to consoling grieving families, the Joplin tragedy has been personal. Dillon recognized names on the list of missing.

“You just hurt with them,” Dillon said. “You still have to be strong for them.”

The Ozark cemetery will be working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, said Dreyer.

His staff was still numb from the tragedy, and focused on day-to-day tasks. They held daily meetings to prepare for the overwhelming job ahead, he said.

Preparing a grave site and holding a service could take four hours, he said. Many employees had pledged to donate their time for the victims’ funerals.

“You’ll find Joplin is a close community,” Dreyer said. “From start to finish.”

My work wrapped up on a more hopeful note. A good Samaritan, still struggling with the devastation he witnessed, was reunited with a young girl he helped immediately after the disaster.


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Perfect strangers friends for life after Joplin tornado

Autumn Achey

By Elliott Blackburn

JOPLIN, Mo | Sun May 29, 2011 10:30am EDT

(Reuters) – Melody Dickey doesn’t remember the tornado hurling her car the length of three football fields or calling out for her nine-year-old daughter Autumn, who was ejected as it rolled.

But she had no trouble at all on Friday recognizing the voice of the stranger who tied the tourniquet on Autumn’s badly cut leg and carried her daughter to safety.

One week after a huge tornado ripped across this Missouri town of 50,000, authorities are still searching for 100 people listed as missing or unaccounted for.

Two families conducted a different kind of search over the week, trying to find perfect strangers brought together by one terrifying night.

Jimmie Joe Zaccarello, 49, had just survived a record tornado crushing like a trash compactor the Home Depot store where he worked. He crawled to safety through spaces in the collapsed steel roof outside.

He was told to stay put, he said, and be counted. But he walked away to offer help.

“The people I kept coming across were the deceased, and it was just horrible,” Zaccarello said. “Finally I found somebody alive, that I could do something, to try to help.”

Melody Dickey and her daughter Autumn Achey left a trailer to rush to the safety of a best friend’s house when the storm caught them.

They were stuck behind a slow moving truck. Dickey honked her horn, frustrated, when there was a sudden calm.

“There was no wind, there was no rain, there was nothing,” Dickey said. “The last place I remember the car being was down by Home Depot.”

Autumn remembered debris bursting through the rear windows. Melody remembered rolling, but not for how long.

“I just told Autumn to hold on, I think,” before her daughter slipped from under the seatbelt and out of the car, Dickey said. “That’s all I could think about. Autumn was gone. There was no way she could have lived through it.”

Autumn remembered sliding out of the car and covering her head, protecting herself from the storm. She hefted a large piece of metal debris off her back and called for her mother.

“I was just thinking ‘I hope Mom’s here,’” she said. Two large gashes had opened in her leg.

“Looked like a man took an ax to it,” Zaccarello said.

Autumn was covered in mud and blood. She could hear her mother call her name, and followed it, limping along.

They were the first living survivors Zaccarello found.

“He just walked right up and picked her up,” Melody said.

The short, wiry flooring specialist tore his shirt to tie a tourniquet on her leg. He could barely heft the little girl, but he struggled his way to emergency help, and angrily demanded they take her mother, too. Melody Dickey’s back was black with bruises and her shoulder dislocated.

And for nearly a week, that was the last they saw of each other.

Autumn’s father, Jim Achey, wandered the wreckage for hours that night before Melody could send him word where they were. The next person he wanted to find was the man named Jimmie who helped his family.

Zaccarello needed to find the family, too. His home and family passed the storm unscathed. But he’d lost a home in a fire in 2005, and a daughter to liver disease in 2006, he said.

He was depressed, thinking of all the death and destruction he saw Sunday, and desperate to know the little girl he helped — just two years older than his granddaughter — had made it through the storm.

“I’ve just lost so much,” Zaccarello said.

He called the local radio station, which has broadcast round-the-clock calls seeking friends, family, volunteers and places to drop donations. He choked up at times as he described his story.

A friend told Jim Achey about the call. They rushed to find a radio at the hospital. Melody knew Zaccarello’s voice instantly.

So Friday afternoon, a beaming Zaccarello and a tough, shy and exhausted Autumn had their reunion in the pediatrics ward of the town’s remaining hospital. She was cut and bandaged, and her leg hurt too much to walk. But she was safe.

“I just wanted something positive to come out of it, you know?” Zaccarrello said.

“It’s definitely positive, man,” Jim Achey said, tearing up. “You’ve got a friend for life.”

(Editing by Greg McCune and Jerry Norton)