Honoring Joplin: A personal remembrance of volunteering in the aftermath

JOPLIN, Mo. (KSHB-TV) - May 22, 2011, is a date that’s hard to forget.

I was just finishing up my high school graduation party in Springfield, Missouri, when I saw something horrific unfold on live television.

With eyes glued to a TV screen, my mother and I watched news coverage of an EF-5 tornado barreling through Joplin.

STORY: Remembering the May 22, 2011 tornado that laid waste to Joplin, Mo.

The frantic voice of the reporter and graphic images of the devastation, destruction and despair paralyzed me.

The town had been obliterated and 161 lives were taken in a matter of minutes.

Growing up in southwest Missouri, I had numerous friends celebrating their graduation from Joplin High School that same evening.

SLIDESHOW: Haunting photos capture the post-tornado ruins of Joplin in 2011

After hearing the high school was destroyed in the aftermath, my heart sank and blood turned to ice.

I then took to Facebook trying to make sure that my friends and their families were okay. When I didn’t immediately hear back, I began to fear for the worst.

After about 24 hours, I was able to confirm that all of my friends survived the storm, but not everyone was so lucky.

READ: Five years after devastating tornado, Joplin Mo. will celebrate survival and assess the future

A few days after the tornado, I drove up to Joplin and witnessed the carnage firsthand.

I remember pulling over on the side of the road and just looked around at the rubble that once was the city of Joplin. Entire neighborhoods had been leveled, the hospital was destroyed, and so many lives were lost.

But the Joplin community remained resilient.

I began to help a family with several others clean up their property while trying to search for anything salvageable in the debris.

GALLERY: Remembering May 22, 2011 - The Joplin, Mo. tornado aftermath in pictures

When picking up wood that previously held their home together, I saw the family - a mother, father, and two kids - just hold one another and thank God that they made it through alive.

It was that moment I knew the Joplin community would be okay. Even at their worst, with nothing left, they still had everything they needed: Their family.

I was only able to help to clean up for several hours, but the experience has stayed with me ever since.

On a night that was meant for celebration, quickly turned into an emotionally scarring experience that can’t be erased.

Joplin is still healing five years after the disaster, but the city is now stronger than ever. 

The personal remembrance was written by 41 Action News digital producer Zack Perry, who lived in Springfield, Missouri, at the time of the tornado. 

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