Driving back from a family wedding in Michigan, John ex’75 and Gracie DeGroot Huitsing ex’74 saw a large, dark cloud descend on their hometown of Joplin, Mo. Having heard the tornado warning on the car radio, they scanned the sky for a funnel cloud.
“Because it was a multiple-vortex tornado and rain-wrapped, we didn’t see the typical twister shape,” John said.
“We just thought it was a horrible rain,” Gracie added.
Within a half mile of their house when the rain engulfed them, the Huitsings kept driving. Once home, they ran into an interior bathroom and turned on a battery-powered radio.
“That’s when we heard the reports of all the businesses destroyed,” Gracie said. “They were all near our daughter’s house, so we got very scared.”
Within 10 minutes of the couple’s arrival home, the wind and rain stopped. They immediately got back in their car and began driving toward the home of their daughter and son-in-law and three grandchildren.
Downed power lines, upended trees and mangled cars blocked their passage at every turn.
“Imagine an area a mile wide, like from Calvin’s campus to 28th Street, and from there to U.S. 131, six miles long, with nothing left standing but trees half broken off,” John said. “It looked like a bomb had exploded.”
Winds topping 200 mph earned the tornado that slammed Joplin on Sunday, May 22, the National Weather Service’s strongest tornado rating—an EF-5. It took 158 lives, making it the nation’s deadliest since 1947, and likely the costliest, in monetary terms, ever. More than 7,500 structures were damaged or destroyed. Twenty-five percent of businesses were shut down, including St. John’s Regional Medical Center. Stately old trees were broken off and the remaining trunks stripped of bark.
The tornado itself passed within a quarter-mile of the Huitsings’ home and within two blocks of their daughter and son-in-law’s. Many of their friends lost homes, businesses and loved ones.
“Afterward, the thing that amazed us most was the support that poured in from all over the country,” Gracie said. “It wasn’t only the Red Cross. Groups small and large were here from every faith, wanting to do anything they could to help.”
“There was a barbecue on every corner,” John said.
Once emergency needs were met, Joplin residents turned their attention to the years-long work of rebuilding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance settlement monies are funding the initial debris removal, demolition and reconstruction.
“It will be a while before we know what losses aren’t covered and what we’ll do about them,” John said. “One thing is for sure: This has changed our town forever, and not just physically.”
“People seem to understand more deeply now that stuff is only stuff,” Gracie said. “We’re grateful to have our lives and each other. You see people hugging each other in places you wouldn’t expect and extending kindness. Yes, we all have some survivors’ guilt. But our faith hasn’t been rattled. We know God is in control.”
“On houses that are set to be demolished, people have written, ‘God is good,’ and ‘God is faithful,’” John noted.
“Within a month, many of the trees that were stripped of their bark and most branches had little sprouts of green leaves growing here and there,” Gracie said. “Signs of hope and growth for Joplin!”