JOPLIN, Mo. — The devastating tornado was on the ground in Joplin for just 20 minutes May 22, but it was enough time to tear the city in two.
In the single-worst tornado since the National Weather Service began keeping official records in 1950, the twister took the lives of at least 125 people in Joplin, with hundreds injured. Approximately 2,000 buildings were damaged.
The Catholic Church was especially hard hit, with the loss of the town’s largest Catholic parish and rectory, an elementary school and a hospital.
“It’s devastating,” said Gene Koester, principal of the local Catholic high school. “It looks like a bomb hit Joplin.”
“The neighborhood around St. Mary’s was scoured clean,” said Springfield-Cape Girardeau Bishop James Johnston, who traveled to the site May 24 with the director of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri. “Our biggest challenge will be addressing the needs of the grade school, which was just flattened, and pastoral care for families in the parish.”
All that remained of the church were some walls and a large cross.
“Father Justin Monaghan, pastor of St. Mary’s, was hunkered down in a bathtub at the rectory when the tornado ripped through Joplin,” said Recy Moore, director of the communications office for the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. “Parishioners were able to dig through the rubble to get him to safety.”
Father Monaghan was uninjured and spent the evening at a parishioner’s home.
St. John’s Regional Medical Center was hit hard, as well. Five patients on ventilators suffocated to death when the power failed, and one visitor also was killed during the tornado.
“No part of the hospital is functional,” said Joanne Cox, a spokeswoman for the Sisters of Mercy Healthcare System. All the windows were blown out, and the roof was torn off.
“They’ve found patient X-rays and records 70 miles away,” said Bishop Johnston.
“A major trauma center being knocked out of commission is the worst level of potential emergency we’re able to respond to,” said Dr. Brian Froelke, chief medical officer for the Missouri disaster medical team, who traveled from St. Louis to Joplin to set up a makeshift 30-bed hospital at a local business. “This ranks as one of the most severe disasters the medical team has seen.”
The hospital had only minutes’ warning to activate a “Code Gray,” signaling employees to move the 183 patients away from windows and into interior corridors.
Immediately following the tornado, all of the hospital’s patients were evacuated to other medical facilities, triage centers and Freeman Hospital in Joplin. Some of them were taken to the local Catholic high school.
“Other sites were rapidly overwhelmed, so McAuley Regional High School was set up as an overflow triage center,” said Bishop Johnston.
Gene Koester, principal of McAuley Regional High School, estimated that between 100 and 150 people came the first night for medical care, shelter or food. On May 23, Koester estimated that they saw approximately 30 people.
“Going on the third day, our mission is changing,” said Koester. “We’re getting fewer people for food and shelter and more volunteers and rescue crews from out of state who need a place to stay.”
Koester said the high school was fortunate.
“We’ve had several families who have lost their homes, but there were no serious injuries or loss of life associated with the school,” said Koester.
Koester said that another service the school is providing is taking names.
“We’ve made lists of people who have come through, with phone numbers and where they’re going, in case loved ones come in looking for them,” said Koester.
At press time, approximately 1,500 people were still missing.
Multiple Catholic social-service agencies are mobilizing relief efforts, including Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Charities of St. Louis.
Kyle Schott, director of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, traveled to Joplin May 24 to assess the damage and organize a response.
Catholic Charities of St. Louis is seeking donations that can be distributed to disaster-response agencies in Joplin.
Bishop Johnston issued a letter to all parishes requesting that a second collection be taken up at all weekend Masses to aid those affected by the tornado.
“Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis said they would be taking up a collection to assist us,” said Bishop Johnston. “I’ve received similar offers from other dioceses and bishops. I received a nice call of support from Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, as well.”
Bishop Baker set up a relief fund of his own for victims of devastating tornados that ripped through Alabama at the end of April. (See related story on this page.)
“In addition to giving donations, if people could keep us in their prayers, that would be appreciated,” said Bishop Johnston.
“The community has been wonderful,” said Koester. “They are reaching out and providing rooms. Most of those without shelter have been offered homes to stay in.”
In the days since the disaster in Joplin, violent weather continued throughout the Midwest, with deaths and injuries in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Indiana. It has been a season of terrible tornadoes, with a total death toll so far of more than 500 nationwide.
Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Financial donations can be sent to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, 601 South Jefferson Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.