A Joplin EF-5 Tornado Raced Through and Left Kirstin with PTSD

My life before PTSD was really great. I was just about to turn 19 when I experienced the event that caused me to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The previous year I had just graduated high school. I had done what a lot of people dream of doing; I spun a glob, put my finger down and wherever it stopped, I moved there.

Now this can sound dreamy and you might think I landed in Hawaii or Paris but no, my finger landed on Joplin, Missouri. Before 2011, this city was pretty much unheard of. Whenever people hear Joplin, they think of Janis Joplin, not a small city bordering Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The only thing I knew about the place was rent was cheap, waffle house was delicious (and cheap) and it was known for being in Tornado Alley.

I originally found a roommate online which turned out to be just as sketchy as it sounds. I drove down from Minneapolis and met her prior to moving down there. Everything was great, she had a bedroom available, the rent was unbeatable and she had the friendliest yellow lab. A couple months pass and I move down to Joplin. Upon arrival she tells me that her boyfriend is moving in instead and that I could stay at her friend, Keith’s.

Before Keith okay-ed me, a stranger, living with him, I lived in my car in the Walmart parking lot. This didn’t last long but it lasted long enough for me to apply for a job at said Walmart. I move in with Keith, get hired at Walmart and then I get those “Oh my goodness, I’m really on my own” nerves and within 2 weeks, I moved back to Minnesota.

I was only in Minnesota for 2 months before I gave in to the feeling of being called back to Joplin. Why was this midwest town so alluring to me? I knew practically no one and wasn’t there for any particular reason. I moved back, got my own place and transferred back to the Joplin Walmart. You’ll see why later but it’s important to know that Joplin has 2 Walmarts, one on 7th Street and one on Rangeline Road, I was employed at the Rangeline location.

How I Got PTSD

I was working in the Lawn & Garden Department when my boss asked me to switch shifts with someone for the upcoming Sunday. My 7am-3pm shift got switched for a 10am-7pm one which wasn’t an issue but plays a massive part in the story. That said Sunday roles around and as cliche as it sounds, it’s just like any other day.

My co-worker Al, who was the door greeter for Lawn & Garden asked me if I would cover the door while he went on his 30 minute lunch break. Al was one of those older gentlemen that was sort of like everyone’s grandpa, he was the best. I, of course covered his spot so he could eat lunch and that’s when my life changed.

A few minutes into greeting folks, my co-worker, Ashley, storms out and yells “Why are you still out here? We have a code black!” I had no idea what that meant and she said we were in a tornado warning and that anyone that comes in has to go to the back of the store to take shelter and that all registers are shut down until the code black is called off. Spoiler alert: the code black never got called off.

I peak outside and the sky was purple and pink and it was barely drizzling. I was one of the last people to get to the back of the store before the locked all the doors. It was a while of just waiting around and a lot of rumors. You’d hear people say, “Oh there’s 2 big tornadoes on the ground headed straight towards us.” or the more reassuring, “There was a tornado that touched down on Main Street but I heard it only lasted a few minutes.” One of those was right and it wasn’t the latter.

Eventually I found myself in the break room bathroom. To make it easier to visualize there was the break room itself and within the break room there was a bathroom for women and one for men. I was originally on the outside wall of the women’s and sat in the position you’re taught to get into in high school for tornado drills. I don’t remember getting into the bathroom but there I was with about 7 other women. Someone made sure to lock the door which I’ve always thought helped save us. I remember saying “how many of you believe in God?” and every hand shot up and then as cheesy as it sounds I told them to get on their knees and start praying.

One girl had her arms wrapped around the base of the toilet, while others were holding onto the pipes under the sink or the handicap bar on the wall. I was holding on to someone’s leg, hoping that door being locked would save us. We didn’t know it but there were two spouts on the ground that formed one massive, EF-5 tornado and it was headed straight towards us. The articles say different things about the width of the tornado or how many people died but it was the most destructive and deadly tornado in modern times.

It felt like we were in that bathroom forever. The tornado passes and I totally blacked out the sounds and any sights when it passed through. Before we know it, we were still in the bathroom but could just barely see the sky.

The roof was gone, the break room and men’s bathroom were gone but besides the frozen section in the dairy department, we were the only part of the store that still had a ceiling. It was cracked and you could see some beams lying across it.

I originally tried opening the door but didn’t realize it was covered by debris on the other side and wasn’t going to budge. I asked everyone to back up and ran at the wall with the door until there was a crack where the wall with the door met with one of the side walls.

The Walmart I was In.

I ripped off the plaster that was on the wall of the door and used someone’s box-cutter to cut away at the wall, ripping out insulation until we see that there are bars so close together that not even the smallest girl would be able to get her head through. To this day, I have no idea where it came from but a small cut of a 2×4 appeared. We propped it up against the corner that had the split and squeezed out.

I was the first one out and remember the first person I came across said to make sure not to step on any bodies. I crawl across beams and slide down the outside wall that was caved in and hitchhiked my way home, seeing as how my car was totalled. Thankfully, the tornado stopped a mile before my apartment.

What I’m Doing About It

What I wish I did was get therapy. That’s the only advice I could give people. I could tell you to seek shelter or make sure to hide here or go here but the Joplin tornado moved that Walmarts foundation an inch. My PTSD tells me if I’m not safe in a place like that, then where am I safe?

I also didn’t even realize I had PTSD until about 2013, 2 years after the tornado. I have talked a lot with friends and family about it but as strange as it seems, I think the thing that helped me the most was researching and learning as much as I could about tornadoes. I also have to tell myself that I am the exception.

Destruction like that happens from less than 1% of all tornadoes and when it gets stormy, it is likely just a thunderstorm. I have had plenty of dark moments due to PTSD since then and I’m aware that it could happen again but I’m also aware that it is so incredibly unlikely. I now live in Portland where tornadoes are basically unheard of which is very reassuring for someone like me.

Conclusion

I’m not entirely sure how to end this or how to wrap it up in a bow because that’s now how trauma works. When you have PTSD whether it’s from a natural disaster, being in combat, experiencing a sexual assault or any other event, I don’t believe it’s a one and done type of deal. I think it’s continual healing over time.

I still get scared during thunderstorms but after what I went through I have every right to be. Whatever you went through, remember healing is not linear and that you will experience continual ups and downs but eventually the ups last longer and the downs aren’t so low. Thank you for reading my story.

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