Joplin tornado: Remembering the loss, moving forward

On May 22, 2011, a catastrophic tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, wiping out much of the town and leaving lives shattered. One survivor, Ryan Otis, witnessed the devastation firsthand. World Vision partnered with his church to deliver emergency assistance in the aftermath.

Story and photos by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision U.S.
Published May 16, 2012 at 12:00am PDT

Last year at about this time, Ryan Otis was getting ready to celebrate his high school graduation. “Yeah, it was supposed to be,” says Ryan, “but things change.”

Soon after his graduation ceremony ended, an EF-5 tornado ripped through his hometown of Joplin, Missouri. Ryan was driving across town with his father and sister, Kelly, to meet the rest of the family for dinner.

“All you could see was black. It was just all black,” says Ryan of the approaching storm. “Our van started to move, turn, twist, shake.”

‘It was just chaos…’

They took cover in a local gas station, but then thought it might be OK to continue on. They drove back out on Rangeline Road — one of the streets hit hardest by the tornado.

“This is kind of hard. It was pretty scary. To my right, a car landed with a person in it. I couldn’t do anything about it,” Ryan recalls. “I looked in front of me. I saw the tornado pass 50 feet from where we were,” he says.

Ryan, who was driving, made the decision to turn around. When they returned to the gas station, Ryan stood inside the front door to hold it closed. Each time a new person sought shelter, he battled the wind to secure the door again.

“It was just chaos. Everyone was crying,” he said, adding that he saw cars, bikes, and all kinds of debris flying around.

Scenes of devastation

When the storm passed, Ryan, his father, and sister began to make their way home, driving around debris and downed power lines. They drove as far as they could, then walked the rest of the way.

Finally, the three of them made it to their street. The winds had lifted the roof from their house and set it back down at an odd angle, leaving gaping holes for the rain to pour into the home, causing more damage.

“We ran up there, and it was just a war zone. When we did get into the house, I packed food, knives, a hatchet, propane, and a lantern,” he says.

“I wasn’t worried about the house, because what’s done is done.”

Helping the less fortunate

Ryan took the hatchet with him and went out and worked until the early hours of the morning, helping to clear debris in Joplin and doing whatever he could to help. Around 3 a.m., he and his father took a walk through their tornado-ravaged town.

St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which the storm destroyed, had floodlights shining on it. “It was really eerie and scary,” he says.

He says it was important to him to help because he was all right — and a lot of others weren’t. After his family finished clearing out all they could salvage from their storm-damaged house, he headed to his church — Grace Baptist Church — to see what he could do. He helped unload 80 sheets of plywood and a trailer filled with bottled water.

Then, he helped church members and volunteers saw lumber to help with reconstruction projects.

World Vision’s response

In the aftermath of the devastation last year, World Vision partnered with Grace Baptist Church by providing hygiene products, cleaning materials, toys, and blankets. We have distribution centers strategically positioned across the United States for quick deployment of relief materials in the wake of domestic disasters.

In addition to our response in Joplin, World Vision also provided assistance last year to survivors in the aftermath of deadly tornadoes in Alabama and flooding in Tennessee.

Ryan says that pictures conveying the power of last year’s storm in Joplin don’t do it justice. “You don’t see cars wrapped around buildings very often. You don’t see houses in splinters often,” he says.

He believes that people won’t forget Joplin in the long rebuilding project. World Vision won’t forget survivors of this disaster — or other life-threatening emergencies that take place right here in the United States.

Learn more

Read more about World Vision’s response to tornadoes across the American Heartland and Southeast over the past year on the World Vision Blog.

Two ways you can help

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the deadly tornado in Joplin, Missouri, please pray for survivors there and elsewhere across the United States who are still struggling to rebuild their lives in the wake of devastating disasters.

Make a one-time gift to World Vision’s U.S. Disaster Response Fund. Your donation of any amount will help us respond quickly and effectively to life-threatening emergencies right here in the United States, like last year’s tornado in Joplin.