Red Cross Volunteer Recalls Horrors of 2011 Joplin Tornado

(Jackie Kennedy, an American Red Cross volunteer and board member at the Joplin chapter, witnessed the May 22, 2011, tornado that caused massive destruction throughout the city. On the fifth anniversary of the disaster, she recalls that day.)

By Jackie Kennedy
American Red Cross

I was folding laundry in my living room, watching the worsening weather reports on local television.

Joplin’s storm sirens had already gone off twice, and I was trying to stay updated. The local news was broadcasting live, continuous coverage, so I felt comfortable watching from the living room.

Very eerily, the TV and the lights began to slowly power down, then slowly come back up. It was almost like a creepy horror movie. I stood up to put the laundry basket away and felt a vibration in my feet.  . . . “Was that thunder?” I asked myself, and then I heard it _ like a jumbo jet landing on my house. I ran screaming for my children and husband, and shuffled everyone to the neighbor’s house, which had a basement.

We beat the neighbors to the basement, and watched through a window as things started flying at my house and flying off my house. I watched my shed get sucked into the air. I watched my tree fold in half from the force of the tornadic winds, and I just kept chanting, “People are dying, people are dying.” My husband finally snapped me out of it.

And then the chaos gave way to an unnatural silence. Emerging from the basement and turning toward my house, I just collapsed. My 80-year-old oak tree was strewn across my property, the street and a neighbor’s yard. I had one car pinned under the tree, and one car hanging from the tree’s upended root ball, dangling like a yo-yo. My husband reminded me that we were alive. He immediately started checking on the neighbors as I just sat in shock.

Jackie Kennedy, a Red Cross volunteer
Jackie Kennedy is an American Red Cross volunteer and a member of the Joplin Chapter’s board of directors. She was in Joplin on May 22, 2011 when the EF5 tornado struck the city causing widespread destruction and recalls the experience. (American Red Cross photo)

It wasn’t long before people were walking down the street, almost zombie-like. They had glazed looks and seemed not to know where they were headed. Some were bleeding, and some were partially dressed, almost as if their clothes had been sucked off of them. My daughter ran into the house and grabbed sweatshirts, handing them to people as they passed.

Then I noticed the smell. It was awful, and I couldn’t breathe. It was the smell of natural gas, so overpowering that I felt sure I would pass out. My husband told me that all the gas mains had broken and the natural gas was leaking _ and then I saw the explosions. Wrecked homes and structures were bursting into flames, one after another. I thought the whole town was just going to explode.

When I could gather my thoughts, I tried to contact my mom, who also lived in Joplin. But there was no cell phone signal, and I panicked. We could not leave our neighborhood due to the destruction and emergency response.

My mother is blind, and I could imagine her in the bathtub surrounded by rubble. I had no way to communicate with her. After about two hours, I received a text message from my sister in Kansas City; she was the one who let me know my mother was all right.

Most of the rest of that Sunday was a blur. We had no way of knowing yet the extent of the destruction throughout Joplin, although I felt in my head and heart that it must be bad. My house had broken windows, imploded doors, ripped-off siding and water damage _ slight in comparison.

TV news trucks from Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa pulled up in front of our house because they were not allowed into the worst areas. The crews were enthralled with my car hanging from the tree and asked if they could camp there for the night. We agreed, and they did their weather forecasts in front of my dangling car. If only they or I had known at that time what the rest of Joplin looked like.

I had been a Red Cross volunteer for six years before the tornado and had never seen a disaster of such magnitude. I was also so proud of the Red Cross during this time. I have never seen such a well-coordinated effort in disaster relief. I have since accepted a position on the board of the Joplin Red Cross, and I’ve vowed to do everything I can to help others who need relief.

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