Healing Through Journaling Five Years After the Storm

May 20, 2016

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, Michele Skalicky talks with participants in Journal Joplin, one of the ways the city is observing the fifth anniversary of the tornado.

There are 161 journals—one for each person who lost his or her life in the Joplin tornado on May 22, 2011.  And the stories in each are unique to those who wrote in them.  This project, called Journal Joplin, is part of the fifth anniversary observation of the storm that tore through the town in the early evening of that late spring day, changing people’s lives forever.

But these journals are a chance for healing.  The idea came from Ann Leach, a Joplin resident and grief relief coach.  She realized that, while events celebrating how far the city has come in five years were being planned, not everyone has been able to move forward.

"We're still many stuck at 5:41 pm on May 22, 2011, and perhaps a more private way to remember and reflect would be more appropriate.  And so the journals are a way that folks can still participate, have their voice heard and help to create that memory bank of this wealth of knowledge from our citizens," said Leach.

Peggy Fuller’s home was just two blocks from where the worst of the destruction was—the only damage to her property were tree limbs that had blown down into the yard.  Her journal story focuses on her daughter, Emily, who was a sophomore at the University of Alabama in spring 2011.  She was in Tuscaloosa at the end of April that year when a tornado hit that area.  Three and a half weeks later she was back home in Joplin when the tornado came through.  She and Emily decided to write the journal together.

"She let me kind of write my version--my side--from my perspective of the story and then she added some information at the end of mine to kind of give us her perspective," said Fuller.

Their journal is titled, "Emily Fuller--Survivor:  A Mother/Daughter Story."

"Our daughter, Emily, has always been afraid of storms.  When she was a little girl my husband and I would tense at the first clap of thunder in the middle of the night and say to each other, 'here comes Emils,' and immediately we would hear the patter of her tiny feet running down the hallway.  We would say to each other, 'oh my gosh.  Here she comes' and then to her, 'make a pallet, honey,' and she would pile up all the quilts and her pillow and snuggle down on the floor by our bed.  Even as a teenager her fear was intense.  We called her the weather watcher because she always paid close attention to what was going on outside.  She graduated from Joplin High School in 2009 and followed her older sister, Jane, to the University of Alabama, and in the spring of 2011 she was a sophomore there and living in a little house just off campus with four other girls.  April was drawing to a close, and exams were rearing their ugly heads.  On April 27 late in the afternoon both Emily and Jane began to text and call me to tell me that a tornado had come through Tuscaloosa, and Emily was unharmed.  Jane, who was living in Birmingham, had actually texted her weather watcher sister to tell her to 'get in the closet now.  There is a tornado heading right for your house.'  So Emily and her roommates went into an interior closet with all the pillows and blankets they could find  and huddled there."

She goes on to read an entry from her daughter, Emily Fuller, about the day the tornado slammed into Joplin.

"May 22 was a beautiful day.  I have such a distinct memory of standing in the driveway watching my mother work in the garden, and I looked up at the sky and it was an unbelievable clear blue.  Mom and I sat at the kitchen table in the afternoon and talked about what to make for dinner, and when she drove to the grocery store I made my way to the Joplin Family Y across the street from St. John's Hospital.  No more than two minutes after I arrived I noticed a weather alert on the TV screen.  To this day I don't know what prompted me to race home-maybe it was the terror of Tuscaloosa's tornado still fresh in my memory, maybe the last 20 years of jumping at the first clap of thunder, but something made me get off the treadmill and drive home despite the sun still shining outside.  That was 5 o'clock p.m.  I called my mom from the car urging her to leave the grocery store--practically begging her.  I still don't know why I felt such urgency--the sun was still shining, and it was shining even as she arrived, and she and I along with my dad ran to the basement as the sirens sounded at 5:17 p.m.  As we wandered through our city that night, dazed and crying and shaking, I remember looking at a landscape of pure destruction.  This was my city.  I had lived here for 20 years and yet in that flattened apocalyptic scene I didn't recognize a single thing.  To the east, my friends' homes were leveled to the ground, and St. John's Hospital has rotated on its foundation.  Looking west, my own home was located less than half a mile from where the tornado had formed.  And to the north, I saw the road my mother had driven on no more than 20 minutes before with limbs strewn across the scoured asphalt.  I used to be ashamed of my fear of storms.  Now I am forever grateful.  It was enough to make me call her and demand she come home, saving her life and mine in the process."

Another journal writer is Billie Holladay Skelley.  She and her husband were in Baltimore, Maryland to attend their son’s graduation from medical school on May 22, 2011.  They had sat down at a restaurant to eat after an exhausting 18-hour drive when their younger son called.  He asked, “had they heard about what had just happened to Joplin?” and wondered if his grandmother and step grandfather were ok.

"At that exact moment on the TV a picture of St. John's Hospital came up, and my husband works at St. John's, so he immediately jumped up, and the reports started coming over the TV and we just--it was just pandemonium," she said.

They headed home as soon as they could after the graduation the next morning, stopping only for gas, to find their home damaged and her parents’ home destroyed.  Her stepfather had saved her mother’s life by leading her to a hallway and laying on top of her. 

When she heard about Journal Joplin she knew she wanted to tell her story.

"Because there will be other catastrophies, other disasters, and I think if you can get something down on paper that maybe educates or helps or inspires someone for later that helps--I mean, it may help them in the future," said Skelley.

She said putting her thoughts on paper has been a catharsis that’s helped her deal with the emotions that are still just under the surface.

The theme of Skelley’s journal is butterflies, and there are blue butterflies flitting across the pages.  She remembers standing amid the destruction soon after the tornado and mourning the trees that were no longer there.  But in the middle of the bare landscape was a green plant—the only one as far as she could see—and it was covered with butterflies.  That gave her hope.

A page of her journal contains a poem she wrote called “Forever Changed”

"I stagger down the streets I have known for 30 years searching for the homes and faces that should be there.  But my eyes find nothing familiar and nothing that is even recognizable.  There are well known items like washing machines and cars, but they are damaged and in highly suspect places.  Like Alice, I have been transported to a place that is simply all wrong--one that is enveloped in so much catastrophy and destruction that my brain cannot possibly process what has happened.  Cars should not be stacked two and three high, and washing machines do not belong in trees.  Splinters of wood, shards of glass and twisted pieces of metal surround me, but there are no trees.  How I long to see a familiar tree with its arms stretching skyward.  I pray for a single branching landmark to orient me, but there are none--only tattered trunks, broken limbs and shattered crowns standing in mockery of their true selves.  I do not belong here.  Months pass.  Slowly, reality returns.  Signs of the destruction are hauled away.  They are out of sight but never out of mind.  Roads are cleared.  Houses are rebuilt and school starts.  Time passes on as only time can, and life tries to return to normal. Years go by quickly yet memories linger.  Some are too strong to ever forget, and I still miss the trees reaching out to the sky.  It's as if the landscape of our town and our hearts have been changed forever."

Other parts of her journal are personal reflections on how the tornado five years ago has impacted the survivors.

"Residents have been challenged and tested.  We have all experienced a range of emotions from hurt and loss to hope and healing.  Some people are still working through the disaster.  In the last five years in our particular family my stepfather has passed away and my mother by design or fortune has no memory of the tornado.  It is a blank for her.  To her mind it never happened.  I have not been so fortunate.  I still have dreams where I'm trying to thank the man from Arizona and I'm in a house with no roof and it is raining on me.  I still dream also about the dogs who got positive hits on my parents' house and on their neighbors' home.  It was so unsettling at the time to know these animals had sniffed something of which we were not aware.  Just the fact that these animals were needed in such a situation disturbed me.  Every time I saw a handler with his dog I kept thinking, 'don't find anything.  Please don't find anything here.'  Their memory lingers in my dreams, I believe, because their presence was so surreal to me.  I kept wondering if they were there to sniff out what we can't smell or what our minds don't want to find."

And her entries offer hope.

"In general, however, I think we have all begun to look  forward and to focus more on the positive memories like the resilience of Joplin's residents and the helping hands of volunteers who came from all around the world.  If it had not have been for the disaster we might never have known how strong we really are and how many friends we really have." 

Ann Leach also created a journal.  Her home near Joplin was destroyed in the storm.  She tells about how, when the tornado hit, she had just returned home from the gym, kicked off her shoes and dropped her purse and keys near the garage door when the dining room windows popped in.

"I ran to safety in the bathroom, just having time to drop to my knees and curl up in front of the sink and the vanity combination.  The toilet was next to that and the bathtub next to the toilet in a fairly small room.  As the tornado raged through my neighborhood in Duquesne, I heard the roar, felt the wind and fought the feeling of being lifted off the ground, grateful a piece of plywood had lodged over me to prevent that from happening.  I remember yelling, 'help,' but immediately telling myself, 'you idiot.  Nobody's going to hear you in the middle of this.' And as things calmed down I looked up and thought, 'hmmm, there's no roof.'"

She managed to escape her damaged home and then returned the next day.

Her journal focuses on “stuff” and getting her life back together.

"My couch was at the end of the driveway, and walls were leaning on each other instead of standing upright.  I started at the front of the house picking up a shoe, a notebook, a kitchen pan, and suddenly there appeared my billfold--a soggy and muddy mess but still filled with my license, money and credit cards.  I could prove who I said I was.  The second day i went back to claim more and move down the side of the house, finding an earring, a favorite book, some clothes and so forth.    And then there were my car keys.  I felt an amazing sense of calm as I realized that now I could not only prove who I said I was with my billfold, but now I could get wherever I needed to go  thanks to my car keys.  What else did  I need?"

She moved into an historic home near downtown Joplin and realized she didn’t want to move anything into the space that she doesn’t absolutely love.

"And so I still have some bare walls, and the ugly living room curtains from the previous owners because I haven't yet found those that I love, and I don't really care because it's all just stuff."

She created National Letting Go Day when people are encouraged to find things they can donate to worthy causes, and when they do, they are asked to say a prayer for communities affected by natural disasters.

"As we let go of our stuff, physical and mental, we create the space for more good to come into our lives, and the real thing is that I have my life.  I have my soul, my friends and my family.  The rest doesn't really matter.  I'm continually letting go of the stuff."

Ann Leach’s journal, along with Peggy and Emily Fuller’s, Billie Holladay Skelley’s and others who completed one will be archived in several places around Joplin.  They’ll be available to anyone who wants to read them. 

Leach said they want to keep the memories—both the good ones and the bad ones—going, and the journals allow Joplin to do that.  

According to Leach, "when we put pen to paper, we can change the world, but mostly we change our world."