When the storm passed, Stark dispatched a sports reporter to the hospital and began to call her employees, to find out who had been hit by the storm and who could come into work. The landlines were working only intermittently, as were the cell phones. She got an incoming call from the Globe’s enterprise editor, Scott Meeker. He was home alone with his three year old and five year old. His wife was safe at work. He was coming in and he was bringing the kids.
Photographer Roger Nomer, returning to the office from the high school graduation ceremony that had been staged at the campus of nearby Missouri Southern State University, had taken refuge in a parking deck opposite an EMS station. Ambulances began tearing out off the building shortly after the winds died down—“That was my first clue something big was going on,” he says. He followed one to the main drag in town, Range Line Road. “But I couldn’t tell where we were,” Nomer says. “The buildings were completely destroyed.” Nomer contemplated dropping his camera and trying to assist victims. But with rescue workers on the scene, “I thought what I can do best is take pictures and document.” He snapped the image of police sergeant Gabe Allen carrying a girl to safety that was broadcast around the world by cable news and The Associated Press and which ran on page one at The New York Times.
At Globe headquarters, the staff had steady power and an unwavering Internet connection, but no one was sure what had happened. An early bit of evidence came from Joe Hadsall, the features editor, who sent Meeker a text saying he lost his house. He also said, “I’m on my way in.” Gradually, Meeker says, the reality of the storm, the breadth of the tornado, became clear.
Facebook became a news gathering source. Meeker implored people to share what they’d seen and to call the newsroom with eyewitness accounts. Alexandra Nicolas, the Web content producer, noticed that plenty of Joplin residents were trying to find each other. “We were flooded with questions from people on Facebook asking if loved ones were okay,” Meeker says. Nicolas came up with the idea of creating a separate Facebook page hosted by the Globe, called “Joplin Tornado Survivors” as a forum for worried residents. The page was up by 7:30 p.m. and by 10 p.m. it would have some 6,000 followers.
Jeff Lehr entered the newsroom around 7:30. When he had emerged from the closet in his home, he stood for five minutes or so, he says, “not seeing anybody out on a landscape that looked like Hiroshima.” He spent an hour trying to give aid but found most people on the streets, like him, wandering without purpose. “I did not even think about reporting in that first hour,” he says, “And I’ve been a reporter going on 30 years.” Eventually, he found a couple with a working truck—his car had been crushed—and hitched a ride to Globe headquarters. He arrived soaking wet. Stark looked at him and told him to write a first-person article: “Jeff, you lost your home. Tell me about it.” He began writing.
Reporter Wally Kennedy, whose home was spared, set out in his car to investigate the damage. “The town had been cut in half,” he says. He saw that St. John’s Hospital was damaged and drove to Freeman Hospital down the road. He started reporting, “but there was an extraordinary number of people being dropped literally off at the doorstep of Freeman.” Patients from St. John’s were being wheeled over on their gurneys. He saw residents using doors and sheets of plywood as stretchers for victims. For the next few hours, he worked as a volunteer, trying to keep the aisles open for doctors, distributing blankets. People were lying on sidewalks and on the street. The hospital’s computers were down, and so was water pressure from the thousands of broken mains. After more than three hours, he got a phone call from Stark. She needed him to get back to work.
The Globe went to press around 1 a.m.—about an hour later than usual. Kennedy wrote the first 20 inches of the lead-all story, under the banner headline “It’s Just Gone.”
“This is my town”