My cat ran under the bed just as that terrible sky came huffing down from the west.
I dropped to my knees to try to coax him out. To take him down to what protection a ground-floor foyer closet might offer.
But he just wouldn’t come. The awful, pulsing, hectoring noise outdoors wouldn’t let him before the windows began imploding, and flying glass forced me to the stairs without him. I literally slid down them as something wooden shot past me, and a large chunk of insulation from who knows where slapped my face.
I opened the closet door and crammed myself inside with the camping gear, lawn chairs and sports equipment, and then listened to pretty much all the other accrued things of my domain being whisked away to who knows where in about 40 seconds or less.
Stepping back out after the worst of the racket had passed, I felt a soaking sheet of rain and realized the roof of my apartment house was gone.
The stairwell to my upstairs apartment, which I had slid down moments earlier, was so cluttered with debris that I could make it only halfway back up to call for my cat. There was no answer. I called and called. There was no answer.
I made my way back down to the foyer and opened the door to look out. There was hail now, and a dark, cold rain, and utter devastation all around.
While it shouldn’t have surprised me, it did: that I was not alone, that all my neighbors had suffered the same, that their roofs and walls and things were all gone, too. And it began to dawn on me that some might be injured, even dead, and that I might actually be among the fortunate, and that, as such, I needed to do something for those who had not been so lucky.
Yet, there was this awful, accompanying helplessness and uncertainty of how to start in the totality of the ruin before me. I decided to start close in, to see if the tenant below me was OK.
His carport was collapsed around his doorway, but he was crawling out of the rubble as I approached. He told me he was fine.
It was some measure of our mutual shock that that is all we could say to each other, each turning away and wandering off to take in what else might be left to us. Seeing a neighbor here, another there, coming out of what was left of their homes. One of them standing and looking at her truck, and burying her head in her hands and heading back inside her now shelterless home.
Wandering then out into the street, having to wend my way through incredible amounts of debris, downed power lines and trees.
The smell of gas from ruptured pipelines of homes permeating the neighborhood. And the people in the street, dazed, not seeming to know what to do. A woman I did not know asking me if I had seen her dog, if I could help her find her dog.
She lived on Pennsylvania Avenue, she said. Was this Pennsylvania? she asked. No, this is Kentucky, I told her. Pennsylvania is one block that way, I said. People unable to recognize which street in their own neighborhood they were on.
You join other survivors calling into the rubble where homes once stood. Is there anyone in there? Does anyone need help? There are no answers, and you find no one to help. And how could you help if you did? The view in every direction for blocks and blocks is nothing but devastation, and there’s no visible emergency help yet anywhere, although you can hear sirens galore in the distance.
There is nothing familiar left now, and you become disoriented in the unrecognizableness of your own neighborhood, your own town. The streets are impassable to vehicles.
Two firefighters from an outlying town come walking down the block, and you ask how you can help and where we are to take people if we find any injured.
They say they don’t know and they suggest toward Main Street, where emergency responders are trying to set up a command post.
I have wandered eight or nine blocks and finally reach an edge of the tornado zone, where there are vehicles moving and houses with roofs still intact, even a few trees still upright in their yards. An older couple in a car pull up to their home. They are among the lucky. They ask if I’m OK.
I tell them I’m one of the many who have lost their homes. I ask if they can take me to the newspaper. I have an awful job to do.
Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin (Mo.) Globe.