The most surprising thing about the tornado area in Joplin, Mo, is the vastness of it.
When I stand at ground level – or even on a hill – it is all rubble as far as I can see. Almost no buildings are left standing, and even those are badly damaged. Trees are stripped of leaves and branches, leaving broken jagged stubs, as are the utility poles.
The tornado which hit here the evening of Sunday, May 22, was huge – a half-mile across. It stayed on the ground almost 14 miles, the distance from Blanco to Johnson City. Six of those miles were straight through the middle of the city.
During that time, it worked like a great grinder, chewing and spitting out everything in its path. That’s the second surprise: the totality of the damage.
Most structures in the center of the path are simply gone. Many homes and businesses were stripped down to bare slabs, crunched and pulverized into a general layer of debris.
If part of a house still stands, it is most likely a bathroom or closet, some small enclosed space where they always say you should take shelter. Now the reason is clear.
I have seen houses entirely blown away except for a closet, with clothes still hanging inside.
Many survivors hid in closets, or lay in their bathtubs to hide from the flying, churning cloud of shards and splinters and chunks and timbers.
Seeing all that, the third surprise is that so few people died in it.
The death toll as I write this is 153. What is amazing, responders agree, is that it wasn’t more.
The official count now is about 8,000 homes destroyed or badly damaged, each home representing one family, most of them at home at 5:30 that Sunday evening. And yet almost all of them survived.
The credit for the low fatality count is being given to the weathermen, who saw the conditions brewing for a major tornado and sounded the alarms quickly, loudly and often. Credit, too, goes to people who took the warnings seriously and took shelter in those closets and bathrooms, or in the few basements and storm shelters.
Still, one woman I talked to admitted she and her husband waited for confirmation that the sirens were warning of a real tornado, not just the usual false alarm, and because of that delay they dove into their shelter with the wind-wall just 20 feet away.
And yet they and most of their neighbors survived, and began climbing out of the wreckage and helping one another.
It didn’t take long for outside help to begin arriving... volunteers with tools and supplies or just a hand.
That’s the process that’s still going on, and the need is great and will remain so for a long time.
In Blanco County, the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City is collecting money for tornado survivors; other churches probably are, too, but that’s a collection point I can guarantee will get every cent into the hands of folks here who need it.