Two distinct divisions of time occur in Joplin resident Jerry Myers’ mind.
He defines them as normal versus new normal.
Normal was life before Sunday, May 22 at 5:41 p.m. The new normal is waking up to everything torn apart, nonstop construction and constant clouds of dust and debris.
In between is that unexplainable time that includes sideways hail and rain; ominous, black clouds; sound like a freight train; metal, glass and wood shattering and cracking all around and life-threatening lightning storm.
Immediately following the EF-5 multiple vortex tornado’s destruction came what Myers, a success trainer, describes as a surreal time when he and his brother, Justin, who works for Coca Cola, went house to house searching for those who were alive.
“Many times we were climbing on mounds of debris 10 to 20 feet high, frantically digging to get to someone who was screaming for help,” he said.
“But what was devastating to me personally is that we might pull on something that looked like a blanket and it would be a body or part of a body. Or we would throw a board off in what looked like a pile of debris and the pile would have a body in it.”
Unfortunately, the brothers only found about 10 people alive that night. Although he didn’t consciously keep track of how many they found dead, Jerry says he knows it was at least four times the number they found alive.
“In this kind of devastation, even when it was still daylight, nothing looks like it should,” Jerry said, the events of that night nearly four months ago still fresh in his mind. “Bodies turn gray and blend in with everything else. You can look right at them and not know they are there. You might be standing on bodies buried in the rubble beneath you. It’s impossible to describe what it looked like and more impossible to describe how it felt to be there trying to help but just doing what you could.”
By the next morning, 119 people had been found dead. As of Sept. 15, the death total of the Joplin tornado stands at 163 making U.S. history charts. It is the deadliest tornado since 1947 and the seventh deadliest single tornado in U.S. history.
What kept him digging through piles of debris, he explains choking back the tears, is that somehow, somewhere they might find someone alive.
“We came to one house with horrific destruction, debris everywhere, roof off,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine anyone alive in there. But we had to try. We couldn’t get in the doors so we went around the house yelling in the windows, ‘Is anyone in there?’
“As I yelled, I saw an elderly gentleman just standing in the middle of the room. He didn’t respond to us. It was like he was shell-shocked. We got him out and took him to our house until family came for him.”
Since the two brothers have no medical training, they could not help attend to those they rescued. “It was probably more difficult pulling out people who were alive and we couldn’t help,” Myers said.
“When we would find someone alive, we would yell, ‘Gurney’ and somehow, someone would be there to take the person to the area we designated for those who were alive. But still there were no medical personnel in our area.
“It wasn’t until after the sun went down around 9 or 10 p.m. that I can remember the paramedics and ambulances from surrounding communities showing up.”
The brothers pulled out one woman whose foot had a large piece of metal through it. She was bleeding very badly and said she was cold. Her granddaughter was with her and asked what could be done for her. He put a blanket on the grandmother and told the granddaughter help was on the way.
“I said that even though I didn’t know if it was true,” he added. “I just felt so helpless.”
Many of those they saw that night frantically asked if they had seen their family members. Myers told them he didn’t know for sure. Then he would point to the two piles, one of the dead bodies and one of those who were alive.
“I just had the sense that I had to keep moving,” he said. “People would have a chance if I could pull them out alive.”
It was 2 a.m. when the brothers pulled out the last body. They went back to Jerry’s house. His brother had discovered during the rescue mission that his own home had been destroyed. He and his family would spend the next two months living under tarps with Jerry and his family, which includes wife LaTonya, and daughters, Kassidee, 17, and Lindsey, 14. Another daughter, Jessica, is married.
The entire family, along with Justin and his family and a friend were at Jerry’s house for a barbecue when the tornado hit.
“In my house, most of the roof was gaping, a lot of windows and doors were blown off and the siding was gone,” he said. “Of course we had no power. We lived under tarps for quite awhile. I was able to obtain a generator so we had limited electricity. We ate whatever someone brought to our door each day because we had no way of cooking effectively.”
He couldn’t speed up how quickly the roof, windows, siding, carpets or flooring would be replaced, so Jerry did something even he doesn’t understand.
“About the two and half month mark, I woke up to a reality that I had constructed a backyard oasis,” he said. “It was like an artistic outlet. My wife and I would work all weekend on it. We put up a privacy fence, did landscaping and added awnings. I can go out there and not see the devastation around me. Now, I look at it and think it was a foolish thing to do.”
There are positive things that have come out of the tragedy. Myers says he is closer to his neighbors, people he didn’t even know before May 22. And, the community has had to come together and accept help from others.
As a success trainer, Myers said his work basically went on hold after the tornado. “My whole world was different,” he said. “Work life was no longer there. The purpose of everyday life shifted to an emergency state. This was part of the new normal because nothing was like it was before the tornado.”
Immediately following May 22, help in all forms flooded into Joplin including food, water, clothing, cleanup crews, financial assistance and even counseling.
Today, though, in himself and others Myers sees a type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Everywhere you go the topic is the tornado,” he said. “So everyone talks about what happened to them.
“But the body and mind takes on another pattern. It doesn’t know how to shut down. It’s difficult to relax. There is a drive to get things back to normal. You have to rebuild this, help this person. You work all day from sunup to sundown, go to bed and crash. You focus on the people and rebuilding. Nothing else.”
Myers knows the only way to really help one’s self emotionally is to face the pain head on, expose it and embrace it. “We have masked the pain and haven’t faced it,” he said. “Breaking through the pain that holds people back in their lives is very freeing.”
Myers is grateful for workshops like The Next Step being offered by Freedom Seminars. Designed to help individuals deal with the “emotional debris” left behind by the tragedy, the workshop will help individuals affected reconnect with sources of strength while allowing some time for healing and reassessment, says Russ Hardesty, PhD, LPC, a co-founder of Freedom Seminars.
Those interested in beginning the process of rebuilding emotionally can attend the workshop being offered at no cost to Joplin residents struggling with issues related to the events of the May 22nd tornado. It is provided as a gift from individuals and businesses that recognize the challenge of rebuilding, recovery and renewal.
It will be held on Nov. 11-13 at Ozark Camp and Retreat Center, south of Joplin. For more information or to register, go to www.freedomseminars.net.
To provide sponsorship for The Next Step call 573/808-1371.
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