Illustration: Polly Becker

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I Survived...The Joplin Tornado
Once I heard how bad the storm could become, my daughter, Kayla, and I got into ready position, the way we had a dozen other times tornadoes had threatened: sitting in the bathroom with a mattress over our heads. She'd just arrived home from college, so we were chatting and catching up. My husband came in the house and called out, "That thunder won't stop." Seconds after he joined us under the mattress, our ears popped, and the blasting force sucked the air out of my body. Then all the windows exploded.

The house started shaking violently, so I clung to the toilet, hearing the water sloshing around in the bowl. After about 15 seconds, everything went quiet. We were just about to get up and assess the damage when the backside hit. We'd thought we were safe, but we were just in the tornado's eye.

The house was a one-story, and the roof tore off, piece by piece, until it was pouring rain inside. The wood in the walls cracked apart. It sounded like a jet engine was roaring above us. Debris pounded the mattress, drowning out my husband's shouts. As the suction intensified, I tightened my grip around the toilet and closed my eyes, praying I wouldn't get ripped away. Kayla screamed; I was too terrified to make a peep. I was sure we were going to die. I just hoped it wouldn't be painful.

Then it passed. What felt like forever was probably only 30 seconds or so. We were left crouching in half a foot of water, buried in slabs of wood and rubble. Dirt filled our mouths, our eyes, our pockets. When we climbed out, we could see for miles—our house and all the others were rubble. Fires were blazing.

We lost everything. Wedding photos and baby books, basketball trophies, Christmas ornaments, family heirlooms—my father-in-law's gun from the Korean War, my grandmother's antique washboard. For a week, I didn't even have a pair of shoes. We thought our cat had been killed; Kayla went to the humane society every day. It would be a year before a former neighbor posted a Facebook picture of a stray seen roaming around. She suffered from respiratory issues and had a mouthful of sores, but now she's back with us and in good health. She just hides during storms.

Though it took months to get our insurance money, within six weeks we'd bought another house—this time with a basement. (We'd been only three years away from paying off our lost one.) The new place is starting to feel like home. My mom gave me some family photos; we've done some planting in the yard. The other day, my husband said, "Hey, I think we're actually starting to get some clutter," which made me laugh. Of course, we could lose it all again one day. But now we know we can start over if we have to.
—Teresa Thaman, as told to Sarah Engler


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