Good afternoon and happy Sunday, friends. It’s hard to believe that five years ago on this very day Whit and I were preparing a dinner for my mother, stepdad, sister, and brother-in-law at our home on 28th and Connecticut in Joplin, Missouri. It was a warm, humid day and we knew that a number of severe storms were firing off in Eastern Kansas, but I don’t believe anyone had any idea of what was eventually coming for our modest hometown. I can remember Whit and I taking a trip to Walmart that afternoon. The humidity was absolutely out of control, but the sun was shining down on everything, giving the day an auspicious feel. It’s amazing to look back at how wrong we were about that and how the weather can truly turn at a moment’s notice, or without notice at all.

Back at our home, I was hard at work, frying up some bacon and prepping the grill for burgers and hotdogs when the lights flickered slightly. A few seconds later, the sirens began to sound. See, that’s something that people who aren’t from Joplin have to understand. Sirens and their use were a commonplace occurrence in our town. Being smack dab in tornado alley, we are used to high winds and the potential threat of severe weather. The problem is, the sirens simply sounded all too often, and usually without serious merit. Over time, this ultimately bred a universal lack of attention to warnings. People simply didn’t heed them because we were used to things never transpiring. It’s sorta like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” only this time the wolf was real and it came in the shape of an ominous black cloud that must have resembled the size of God’s finger (to borrow a line from the movie Twister).

While the sirens were sounding, I stepped out of my front door, which was right on Connecticut Street. I looked at the sky and it was a soft grey. I said to Whitney, “This is bullshit. Nothing’s happening.” I was so lost in my own self-righteous indignation that these sirens were somehow interrupting my progress with dinner. Looking back, I was foolish – Very, very foolish. We stepped inside and Whit flipped on the local news. I believe it was KSN and they had their sky cam pointing toward the west end of Joplin. Around this time, the wind began to pick up. On the TV, they cut back to the sky cam and we noticed what appeared to be a very low black cloud moving over the west end of town. We see these bursts of light, which we thought was lightening at first glance. In fact, the news team did, too. Then, suddenly, it seemed as if it dawned on us and the team at KSN in the exact same moment that what we were seeing wasn’t a low cloud, but a massive mile-wide tornado. The flashes we thought were lightning? They were transformers exploding. That’s when all hell broke loose. Utter panic hit the newsroom and they yelled “Take cover now. There is a massive tornado on the ground in Joplin heading east! Take cov…..” *BLANK* The television went black. It was in that moment that the trees in front of our home began to bend at 90 degree angles, leading us to rightfully believe we were in imminent danger.

We quickly did what we could to grab our cats and our turtle, but we were unsuccessful with the cats. We knew time was running out, so we told them we loved them and headed for our crawlspace out back. The truth is, we didn’t know what to do and we didn’t know if we were even in a safe place. I know it’s almost embarrassing to say that I took cues from the movie Twister here, but I did. We didn’t have a basement. We had a crawlspace under a rickety, old house. We found the plumbing line and I made Whit get within my arms and I held her and us to that old, rusted pipe that was driven deep into the ground. Then the sound came. The sound really is unforgettable, too. The whole freight train thing? Yeah, it’s true. We stayed under our house for approximately 20 minutes before emerging to find a back yard littered with clothes, the fragments of homes, tree branches, insulation and so much more that belonged to our neighbors.

In a frantic rush, we hopped in my car and sped to my mom’s house to discover that she, my stepdad, and my sister/brother-in-law were all safe. In fact, the part of town they lived in was virtually unscathed with the exception of some downed tree branches. After checking in on my family, we were off to look for Whit’s. When we pulled onto 26th and Connecticut, we soon had to abandon our car. It was absolute chaos. There was simultaneously panic while scores of people wondered aimlessly and confused. Live power lines littered the streets along with endless amounts of debris with some homes still barely standing while others laid in shambles. Benji’s place (Whit’s great grandmother) was located at about 24th and Illinois. We finally arrived after taking numerous wrong turns because everything was out of place, and the areas you once knew were completely unrecognizable. It became sickening looking at the sheer devastation. Where homes and trees once obstructed the views beyond her neighborhood, we could now see Joplin High School as it lay in ruins. What was left of Franklin Technology Center was crumbled bricks, fire, and that nauseating scent of natural gas filling the air like a fog. Thankfully, Whit’s grandmother and great grandmother were OK. From there, the next step was getting completely out of that area for fear of gas leaks and explosions.

After we moved on from the panic of finding our family, the search then pointed toward our friends. Whit, one of our best friends, Seth, and myself began doing anything we could to get phone calls through while making all attempts to get through town to our friends’ homes. By the time midnight had rolled around, we learned that all those close to us were safe and accounted for. Some were battered and bruised, but they were alive. In the end, we were lucky. But is it really lucky? Is it even right to say that? We didn’t lose anyone close to us, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t feel the pain of so many friends, family, and strangers who did.

It’ll always be crazy to know that we were able to come from under our house, walk in the back door, right out the front door, and the most that our home suffered was some wind damage and being coated with the debris of other people’s homes, their memories, their lives. But if we walked two and a half short blocks north on Connecticut, everything was gone. It was as if the homes, the apartments, the gas stations, and more were just dominos and a hand had come through wiping them all off the edge of a table. It’s impossible to forget. And the crazy thing, that’s just what existed within the 5 block radius of our home. A mile and a half wide swath, 13 miles long is what ended up being destroyed. In a small town like Joplin, it’s basically half the town. Insane, right? It was and still is.

It’s a miracle of some sort that more people didn’t lose their lives, but to the 162 casualties, may they Rest in Peace and may their loved ones find continued grace and healing.

Below are just a very small handful of the photos I took the day of and in the couple of days that followed. This was actually only a few weeks after I picked up my first camera. The odds are, unless you’re a longstanding friend, or someone from Joplin, a lot of you have probably never even seen these photos. You could definitely say this event is what sent me down the rabbit hole of photography, but more importantly, photojournalism.

The point of this post wasn’t to drudge up old feelings, but I don’t think I’ve ever really set back and tried to pen my thoughts or my recollections of what happened that day. I am glad I did. It was eye opening and I, admittedly, got the severe shakes a couple times as I jogged my memory of what we experienced. And I also wanted to do this to try and give my many friends who aren’t all that familiar with Missouri, or the May 22nd, 2011 tornado, a bit of insight into where Whit and I come from and what happened on that day.

Looking at Joplin now, you’d really never know what happened. Even with having a corrupt city government, the town was able to bounce back like never before and that’s because the citizens banded together with the aid of amazing souls from all around the area and the US at large. I love my hometown very, very much and I will always be proud to be from Joplin. We are a resilient people, it can’t be denied.

Joplin Strong then. Joplin Strong today. Joplin Strong always.

With love,

Aaron

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COMMENTS
Jeanna M. Selvaggio

You guys are amazing. A tragedy but you really captured the moment.

My husband is from wichita, Kansas (he now lives in the Uk with me) and I remember freaking out once when I heard the Tornado siren go off and they were all “oh it’s fine. Don’t worry!”
Seeing these photographs is a reminder of how it can really NOT be ok and how i really hope his parents who still live in the US never have one go through thier neighborhood.
I think it’s a great thing to have documented it for memory and a a reminder of how it could be so esily lost.

Melissa Sigler Porter

I remember that last home with “God Bless Everyone” and the devastation in general. I was in Joplin a few days after it happened and documented what I saw as well. It was heartbreaking and something I’ll never forget.

Excellent piece and amazing photos….and the word “ubiquity”.

Sue Thomas Bernard

Still brings tears to my eyes. Wonderful post. Thanks Aaron!

Wow man. Such a good post I really enjoyed reading this and the pictures. I remember how freaking scared I was after that tornado for you and the homies from Joplin. I think you did a damn good job capturing the sheer devestation especially being so new to photography at the time. I drove through Jolin soon after and I’ll never forget how awful it was. Good post Aaron. Thank you for sharing this.

Couldn’t have said it any better. Thank you for sharing.

So eloquently written and the photos show what you saw!

Judy Neuenschwander

Arron to think you were new to photography yet you captured such a realistically view of what can happen in the blink of a eye. A normal day that can become a horrible nightmare. Our church’s mission group made several trips to help out. They always came back with stories from the families who not only survived, but had the strength and hope to go on.

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