Stories and Photographs of Tornado Survivors

Stories and Photographs of Tornado Survivors

by Billie Holladay Skelley

My story of surviving the May 22, 2011 tornado in Joplin is from a little different perspective—and I am submitting it in the hope that it will provide a new dimension to your collection of stories. I know that you probably have several photographs depicting the destruction and despair the tornado produced, but I also wanted to provide you with a photograph that, for our family, provided restoration and healing — and that brought us hope.

We have lived in Joplin since 1982, but when the tornado of May 22, 2011 actually hit, we were in Baltimore, MD for our son’s graduation from medical school. We were in a restaurant having dinner that evening, when my phone rang. My youngest son, who was attending medical school in Lexington, KY, was calling, and he wanted to know if we had heard anything about Joplin because his Facebook and Email accounts were being bombarded with reports of a tornado causing massive damage to our town. I told him no, but at that exact moment, the television in the restaurant began to show footage of a demolished St. John’s Hospital. My husband, Dr. Mark J. Skelley, is an oncologist-hematologist, and his medical office was located in St. John’s Hospital. He could see massive damage to his office on the television screen—so immediately we became seriously concerned. My husband’s phone began to ring at that point, and I began trying to call my elderly mother and step-father who lived near Cecil Floyd Elementary School on Roosevelt Avenue. It was difficult to get through at first, but through a series of calls, I learned they were alive, but their house was severely damaged.

Needless to say, we immediately made plans to return home. I cannot accurately describe the intensity and urgency of our road trip back to Joplin. It was 18+ hours of driving, stopping only for gas, worrying about what we would find, and trying to get information via the phone and the radio the whole time. We were worried about so many things—especially the fate of our neighbors, friends, and my husband’s patients. We were also worried about the condition of our own home and property and what had actually happened to Joplin. From intermittent radio news updates, we learned of the destructive force of the tornado and heard the constantly changing figures noting the morbidity and mortality statistics. Through phone conversations with my mother and step-father, I learned that they could not get out of their front door because a portion of Cecil Floyd’s roof was obstructing their doorway and covering the front of their house. The garage door at their home was mangled and could not be opened, and their roof was three-fourths gone. The only place that remained somewhat intact in their home was in their kitchen area, but their bedrooms, living room, and bathrooms were destroyed. It was raining on them, and they had no electricity and no running water, but they kept assuring us they were “fine” and telling us to drive safely.

I would later learn that my step-father had saved my mother’s life. When he heard the tornado approaching, he tried to get my 88-year-old mother into the bathroom. She could not move fast enough, and they ended up in the hallway, where he jumped on top of her and covered her with his body as the roof flew off the house. The bathroom, that they had been trying to reach, was destroyed. There were sliding glass doors on the tub/shower unit in that bathroom, and the force of the tornado took the glass doors off their metal tracks and pushed them through the middle of the tub/shower unit. Had they made it to that bathtub, they would undoubtedly have been seriously injured or killed by the penetrating glass. My step-father also suffered a puncture injury to his leg which would later require hospitalization and intravenous antibiotic treatment.

When we finally reached Joplin, it was two o’clock in the morning and everything was in darkness. We made it, via a circuitous route, going over tree limbs and power lines to our home. Even in the darkness, we could discern that there were several trees down on our property, hundreds of stakes stabbed randomly across the front yard (like large wooden darts), and toys, car seats, and fence pieces (none of which belonged to us) in the backyard. Our roof was damaged, but still in place. A huge fallen tree limb covered our dining room window, and our large storage building (east of our home) was completely demolished and parts of it were totally blown away. Much of the contents of that building were damaged or just completely gone. I think a certain degree of shock set in at that point just because of the enormity of the destruction, the changes, and the loss—but even though there was a certain amount of shock, we knew our home had fared much better than the homes of so many others.

At 7 AM the next morning I was able to convince the National Guard troops stationed at 26th and Schifferdecker to let me pass into the inner tornado zone, which had been blocked off, in order to help my mother and step-father. A U.S. marshal actually took me to their house on an ATV. As soon I saw their home, I knew it was indeed an unlivable situation, and they would have to be relocated. Fortunately, my brother was able to come to Joplin and take my mother and step-father to his home in Texas. On that first day, however, as I stood there watching the rain fall on all their earthly belongings, I thought what am I going to do to try to save some of their things.  A man who I had never seen before (and whose name I never got, but who I think said he was from Arizona!) came up to my side and asked if I needed help covering their roof. I nodded yes, and in an instant he was up on the roof covering their house with a tarp. I went in the house to try to save some of their clothes and papers, and when I came out to thank him, he was gone. I never saw him again. Thanks to his skill and help, however, I was able to secure and save many of their belongings.

Over the next few weeks, friends, neighbors, and strangers were everywhere helping each other in numerous ways to restore and repair. I appreciated all their efforts—but none as much as the help provided by that unknown man from Arizona.  We were also able to help our friends and fellow citizens—assisting where we could and giving of our time with Habitat for Humanity and with other service groups. Taken altogether, Joplin citizens began to heal from the disaster. The real turning point for me in the healing process, however, came with a particular photograph.

On that first morning, when we had returned to Joplin, my husband left to make arrangements for the care of his patients. At first, they would not let people into St. John’s Hospital out of safety concerns because of the degree of destruction and damage. It was actually several days before he was able to inspect his medical office. He found, as the television screen in Baltimore had predicted, that basically everything was damaged or completely destroyed—including personal items that he had kept in his office. In one of his patient exam rooms, my husband had kept a large photograph (see below) in a huge wooden frame on the wall.  The photograph showed our four children (Allison, James, Nathan, and Logan) dressed in “Wizard of Oz” attire. Patients used to ask to be put in the “Wizard of Oz” room because they liked the picture.

Wizard of Oz -- Logan, Allison, Nathan, and James Skelley


After the tornado, a co-worker found this photograph amid the debris and rubble of the office. The frame was completely shattered and the picture had tears, smudges, holes, and water stains. Worst of all, there were bits of dirt, wood, and insulation embedded in the fabric of the picture. It was in terrible shape, and when it was returned to us, I considered just tossing it in a pile with all the rest of the garbage. For some reason, however, I could not throw it away. I guess it was a reminder of past happier times or something. I do not know, but I could not throw it away. Instead I kept this tattered, and somewhat smelly, photograph in a box in our garage as a reminder of all that we had lost. I just couldn’t throw it away.

In the fall of 2011, however, Operation Photo Rescue came to Joplin to help tornado victims restore damaged photographs. Our photograph was so badly damaged, I did not hold out much hope for its “rescue,” but I decided to take the picture to them. That decision was a turning point for me and the photograph. Through the magic of computers and the talent of their gifted artists, Operation Photo Rescue restored the photograph! When I got the picture back, it was a million times improved from its previous state. I remember looking at it for a long time and just smiling. For me, the restored photograph became a testament to the ability of strangers to sustain a memory and provide emotional comfort. Through the skill and caring of these strangers, I finally found a measure of real peace. Because of their efforts, I was able to finally look back—and I knew at that point that I could truly start looking forward.

The people of Joplin, including our family, have been blessed with the helping hands of many people. All of the efforts have been appreciated, but for me that restored photograph provided the most personal comfort. Every time I look at it, I remember. I know that after a disaster providing both food and shelter are essential to the survival of victims—and we all are appreciative of those efforts—but restoring memories of happier times is also important because it helps to sustain the spirit of the affected people. The day that I saw that restored picture, I knew we, as a family, and Joplin, as a city, would make it. We could remember the past and be grateful for all the assistance we had received, but we could also move forward with a new hope for a bright future.