Jack Kaminsky lives with his mother now. He is 63 years old, broad shouldered, with silver hair and a silver beard. He’s the circulation director of The Joplin Globe, and he and his wife survived the tornado that blew apart their city last May 22 by diving into their basement and listening to “everything fall apart.” When the noise subsided, they pushed opened the door at the top of the stairs and saw over their heads a blue sky. At their feet lay Joplin.
Kaminsky was able to salvage an old cabinet-style wall clock from what was left of his home, and he later put it in his office. Its round dial sits above a square picture that reveals—when you get down on your knees for a good look—a faded image of a guardian angel. The dial is stopped at 5:28 p.m., the moment that the winds grew strong enough to dislodge the battery. At 5:41, according to most accounts, the twister touched down.
The EF5 tornado—the most powerful on the Fujita scale, with winds topping 200 mph—wiped out 25 to 30 percent of Joplin. It demolished 8,000 structures. The newspaper lost 1,500 subscriber homes in minutes, and at the same time, 100 advertisers. Two Walgreens were destroyed. Home Depot was destroyed. A Walmart was destroyed. Academy Sports was destroyed. Dillons, a grocery store, was destroyed. The Globe’s building took only slight damage. So did the rest of downtown. But a third of the Globe’s approximately 100 employees felt the tornado’s power. Many dug themselves out of shattered homes. Others found their vehicles crushed or flipped. Some lost friends and acquaintances. Bruce Baillie, a 53 year-old Globe page designer with a daughter in college, lost his life. He was killed while home on a vacation day.
Almost a year later, Joplin is putting itself back together. Construction is booming across the town of 50,000 people. Homes and stores are being rebuilt. There will be a new high school and a new hospital.
The Joplin Globe, too, is displaying remarkable resilience, and some might say the paper is stronger and better than ever. This is happening, of course, amid sadness. To this day, Kaminsky’s eyes spill over when he gazes at a special section of the Globe tacked to his office wall, “Faces of the Storm,” which was printed June 12, 2011 and carried photos and bios of 153 people who were killed (the death toll would eventually rise to 161). In large text in the center of the page are the words, “Psalms 46:1.” You have to look up the verse for yourself: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
“I couldn’t tell where we were”
Jeff Lehr, a 57-year-old crime reporter, has a hard time recalling what happened in the weeks and months after the tornado. His therapist believes he has post-traumatic stress disorder, which has led to memory loss—a difficult handicap for a reporter to accept. This is what he does remember: He couldn’t reach his cat, Mr. Jones, who was hiding under furniture as the winds bore down on his apartment building. He fled the second-floor through a hailstorm of glass and sheetrock, down a flight of stairs, and into a closet on the first floor. He made it just as the tornado pulled the roof off his building.
May 22, 2011 was a Sunday, and Globe editor Carol Stark was at work that afternoon to oversee the coverage of the high school’s graduation ceremony and to keep an eye on the weather. Because of the news event, the staff, as luck would have it, was a bit larger than normal. Stark watched the TV coverage of the brewing storm. She saw a broadcast of a black wall of clouds and then the screen went black. Someone suggested going to the basement, just as the newsroom’s cell phones started lighting up.
The basement of the Globe is an old bomb shelter. From the newsroom on the second floor, you take a black, spiral staircase that leads to a steel door sealing off a concrete room filled with old Globe racks and other detritus. That room leads to another full of thousands of dollars worth of newsprint. The storm sheared off a chunk of the roof, sending a cascade of water into the warehouse. “Our publisher and accountant were building little dams to keep the water away from the rolls of newsprint,” Stark says. Meanwhile, messages coming in on the staff’s phones told them the hospital was hit, the Walmart was hit, the high school was hit. “I was thinking that’s impossible,” Stark says. Those places were miles apart.