Voices from the Midwest: 'A wall fell on me. I think it saved me'

Residents of Joplin, Missouri, tell David Usborne how they survived last week's 198mph tornado
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The Independent US

Michael Phillips turns in his front room and spots a stranger on the street. "Welcome to our home," he exclaims, gesturing towards the steps leading to the front door. The joke is jarring given the ravaged landscape all around. There is no door to 2119 Delaware any more. Actually, there is almost no house.

Humour, like faith, is a salve, and, truthfully, residents on this short block are feeling lucky. Every home here was either drastically damaged or obliterated by the monster tornado that scoured so much of this Midwestern city a week ago today, leaving 142 dead and hundreds wounded, homeless or both. Many of the living are now bereft of nearly everything they owned.

"It's just stuff," says Michael.

"Just stuff," are words you hear repeatedly as survivors delve through half-vapourised sitting rooms, studies and bathrooms looking for things that mostly are no longer there – pictures of family, jewellery, holiday souvenirs perhaps. Material losses barely matter when lives of loved ones have been spared.

They find this perspective, because the deeper suffering of others is so close to hand. It is suffering that a week later is finding expression in burials and funeral services. President Barack Obama arrives here this afternoon for a public memorial for the city.

For many, though, the process of grieving remains delayed as they still are unable to locate and identify their missing.

Here on Delaware, few are more aware of their relative fortune than Ron and Mary Kaiser, who live – lived – at 2116, directly across from Mr Phillips and his partner, Kathy Gale. Their house, Ron says, smiling, was undoubtedly "the worst built on the block", yet roughly half of it is still sort of standing, including the walls and ceiling of a small hallway where the two of them lay on top of one another when the twister struck.

"I wasn't afraid. What good would fear do us?" Mary asks, explaining that she and her husband had been making strawberry jam when he yelled to take cover. On the kitchen counter, open jars are still standing, the red juice diluted by the water that poured into the semi-destroyed house.

Ron shows me what used to be their bedroom with furniture under an open sky. The furniture is someone else's though. It flew in. If Mr Phillips can afford passing levity, maybe it's because he wasn't in Joplin last Sunday evening. But he suffered his own moments of long-distance terror. Kathy was alone in the house when the storm was approaching and they had each other on their cellphones through all of it.

"I watched the warnings on the TV and, you know, usually I am nonchalant when the sirens are going. Then I realised. This one was real. It wasn't just the sirens going off. And it was just massive. Suddenly, it was coming and coming and coming."

Michael easily sensed her panic when suddenly the swivelling fist of the tornado reached down and pummelled the house Kathy was cowering in.

"I heard everything, I heard the house explode," he tells me. "A couple of times I thought I had lost her. I could hear her saying 'Oh my God, Oh my God'. After that I could tell that she had become trapped."

Kathy takes me to the side of the house to show three steps that once led from the kitchen – packets of cereal and biscuits are still in neat rows in cupboards that have lost their doors – down to a computer room that has vanished except for the carpeted floor.

"I knelt down in that corner, next to the steps. There was a wall here and it collapsed on top of me. I think it saved me."

Just how long Kathy remained under the rubble of what was once a three-bedroom home she cannot be sure.Her arms and neck are a patchwork of swellings and bruises today. It was 30 minutes or an hour before she heard the voices. Her granddaughter had come as well as her son-in-law, a lorry driver with strong arms. Two other people were looking for her, too – Mary and Ron from number 2116.

She remembers pushing a hand through the bricks and wondering why no one saw it. She reached for a piece of wood that would stick out longer. It was her son-in-law, Paul, who spotted it first.

"Seeing that big hand reach down the hole towards me was just about the best thing I've seen in my life," she says now. Like so many other parts of Joplin, this district a mile east of the city's now ruined St John's hospital, has been shredded so completely it defies comprehension, slammed by a merciless force of destruction dropped from the sky. These neighbours lived through it.

Indeed nobody on this block died last week. And amid the many agonies of Joplin, miracles like these are to be remembered as well as the myriad tales of loss.

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