Watertown Daily Times - 5/26/2011
Joplin tornado destroys home, not heart of native Watertown woman
By Samantha Christian
Watertown native Kathy Cox will never forget the day her oldest son Lucas received his high school diploma. That was the day one of the deadliest tornadoes on record in the U.S. ripped through Joplin, the southwestern town in Missouri where she and her family had built their beautiful home and life.
While their house and most of the neighborhood they knew and loved was destroyed in Sunday’s F-5 tornado, they managed to walk away with their lives still intact and taking things one step at a time.
“We’re just lucky to be alive, and we’ve got plenty of support. We thank God we’re OK and people that I know are OK, however there are a lot of people who aren’t,” said Kathy.
The daughter of Delores and the late Tom Bartee and sister of Lebanon Lutheran School teacher Pam Bartee, Kathy graduated from Watertown High School in 1976.
She went on to become a nurse, moved to St. Louis, Mo., for 10 years and settled in Joplin 18 years ago when Lucas was just a baby. Kathy and her husband, Jeff, a gynecologist at Freeman Hospital, have raised three more children, Emma, 17, Jared, 15, and Claire, 13, in Joplin.
Lucas, like Emma and Jared, attended Joplin High School, but to accommodate the graduating class of nearly 500 the ceremony took place on the northeast side of town at Missouri Southern State University instead.
A card Lucas received from his grandfather that day included a note that read, “I was in the first graduating class in 1957.” The irony of that statement would only be known hours later when Lucas joined the last graduating class of Joplin High School, one of the many structures completely destroyed in the tornado.
While families were taking photos of the recent graduates in the gymnasium, an announcement came on saying the tornado sirens were going off and the thousands of people in attendance just scattered, said Kathy.
“There are so many times the sirens go off. We’re in tornado alley so you think, it’s a tornado, just a couple of trees and we’ll have to pick up branches tomorrow. But nothing, nothing like this,” said Kathy.
The Cox family had taken three vehicles to get to the school early and save seats for the 3 p.m. ceremony. When the sirens went off they left separately and took three different routes to their home not knowing the location of the tornado at that time.
Kathy and her youngest children Jared and Claire chose to take 20th Street, the road she had driven every day since she first arrived in Joplin.
They turned on the radio and heard a tornado had touched down in what Kathy recognized to be practically her backyard and was heading east.
“I did not see it (the tornado). But I saw the sky and I thought, you know I’ve lived in Wisconsin all my life and I know what a funnel cloud looks like, and this was not good at all. Anybody could tell that this was impending doom,” said Kathy.
Kathy took her two children to the only place in the area she could think to stop — the home of an acquaintance she knew whose children attended the same schools as hers. When they stopped at this house, they entered the back door and only one child, a sophomore, was home. Since the house did not have a basement they chose the next safest place in an interior room without windows, tipped over a couch and hid under blankets and cushions for about a half-hour.
“Then it (the storm) kind of stopped a little bit. This was completely between the hospital (St. John’s Regional Medical Center) that was destroyed and the high school that was destroyed, so how God did not pick us I have no idea,” said Kathy.
While Lucas and Emma took a route further north, out of the path of the tornado, Jeff was “smack dab in the middle” and very close to their house when his pickup truck was lifted off of the ground, his bed liner blew off and his window was crushed in the back.
“He thought for sure that he was dead. He just laid down in his front seat and hoped to God it was going to be OK, but then it went as quickly as it came,” said Kathy.
“It looks like there’s been some sort of nuclear bomb that went straight down the middle,” said Kathy. “They say that it split Joplin in half, and that’s exactly what it did. It cut a half-mile road straight through the beginning of Joplin to the end, six miles from west to east.
“All those places that I shop at regularly, the grade school that my kids and all the kids in the neighborhood went to is gone,” she said, referring to the area between 26th and 20th streets at the “center and artery of the tornado.”
Kathy said when they drove into their neighborhood they could not get through because there were too many trees down and branches on lawns.
“It was just an ‘Oh my God’ moment. Every house was touched and not a tree was standing.”
Kathy said neighbors were outside frantically asking one another if they were safe, because some people were stuck under trees and rubble as not everyone had a basement.
And while she certainly worried about her neighbors, Kathy could not forget about her furry friends. “I’ve got three dogs and two cats, and they all were fine. We didn’t find one cat until a day later, but he was fine.”
“We lived in a neighborhood that was so wonderful,” Kathy recounted. “We loved it there.”
The Coxes built the 12th house in their neighborhood, and nearly 70 others have sprung up there since then. Kathy estimated only 20 of those homes are reparable and the rest will need to be demolished because they are not safe.
“I’ll walk through my house, standing in my kitchen that I have cooked at for almost 20 years , and I’m thinking that it never rained on me before while I’m standing at the sink,” Kathy said as other storms still loomed in the sky this week.
“You never thought the house that you worked so hard at, that you’ve raised your babies in and had cribs set up in, was ever going to be like this,” she said.
“The heroic effort of people that have been trying to find survivors is just amazing. And people in this Midwestern town are so patient and helpful to everybody, and nobody is running into houses to try to take stuff,” she said.
“Friends and even acquaintances just showed up (to help) because their house was OK and they knew your house wasn’t,” said Kathy.
While the Coxes plan to rebuild their house, for the next 18 months they plan on living somewhere else. In the meantime, they are staying at Kathy’s in-laws, Joyce and Stan Cox, who live about five miles west in a house that was not damaged by the storm.
Kathy also dwelt on the thought of people who have no building for them to work in anymore, like the Home Depot, restaurants and grocery stores.
“Those are all people who no longer have any income and will not for a long, long time. It’s just gone, it will take forever to do (rebuild) this,” she said.
While the thoughts and prayers of friends from her hometown who have reconnected via email, cell phone and Facebook are helping the Cox family, Kathy said she is also getting through this difficult time by putting a smile on her face, a tactic that seems to be working for those around her as well.
When Kathy got into her house earlier this week to sort through her things she said, “Well, this isn’t really my idea of spring cleaning,” to which her sister-in-law replied, “Well this is a hell of a way to get out of hosting the family Christmas party.”
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” she said. “You have to laugh, not laugh at what’s going on, but to come out of your basement wearing a Santa Claus hat or Cheesehead because it’s the last thing you found.”
“People are just pulling together so much that it’s unbelievable. It’s camaraderie, it’s amazing. They are just picking themselves up by the bootstraps and moving on. That’s kind of how we do it down here,” said Kathy.
As of press time today, at least 125 people were killed as a result of the tornado, and another 232 remain unaccounted for in Joplin. An estimated 2,000 buildings were destroyed.
“I haven’t been able to venture quite too far out of my local spot because we’ve got too much work to do, but the rest of the town is just devastating,” said Kathy.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do from here. We’ll just have to go day by day,” she said.
President Barack Obama is expected to travel to Joplin on Sunday to meet with people affected by these tornadoes. Obama told CNN, “We are going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure they recover.”