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Former Pagosans survive Joplin tornado

The tornado tragedy in Joplin, Mo., on Sunday hit close to Pagosa Springs when a former local resident, Jacob Miller, lost everything he owned but, fortunately, managed to hold onto everything that mattered to him.

“We’re literally at a one-hundred percent loss,” Miller said in a phone interview on Tuesday, “but I’ve got everything that means anything to me, with my family still here.”

As of press time Wednesday, 125 people had lost their lives due to the tornado in Joplin Sunday night, with an unknown number of people still missing. According to the National Weather Service, Sunday’s twister was the deadliest in over 60 years, since the weather service began keeping official records in 1950, and the eighth-deadliest in U.S. history. An EF-5 tornado (the most lethal designation storm) flattened most of what had been Joplin.

“I was one of the fortunate ones,” Miller said, his voice breaking as he paused for composure. “There’s people we know who lost their lives. There are people we know who we don’t know where they are.

“I heard about people being sucked out of cars. I heard about babies being sucked out of mothers’ arms,” Miller continued, still emotional.

According to Miller, the experience was harrowing. After waking his two boys up from an extra long nap in their upstairs bedrooms, Miller and his dad, Craig (who still resides part-time in Pagosa Springs) noticed that the wind had kicked up particularly hard. Taking plants off the back deck, Jacob realized that something bad was on the horizon,

“You could hear the tornado coming, it’s an unmistakable sound,” Jacob said. “You could tell from the way it splits your ears.”

“We were at ground zero,” Craig added. “Although the warning siren sounded, it went off for about 30 minutes and I thought it was all clear.”

Jacob said that he and Craig immediately took the boys into the basement and hunkered down. As the sound rolled towards the house, both men threw their bodies over the children as they awaited the oncoming train of devastation.

“We were down there and then the lights flashed … then everything went pitch black in the basement,” Jacob said. “We were sitting in total dark when I could hear the house creaking and then, the unmistakable sound of the entire house being sucked away into the wind. My two-year-old didn’t know what was going on, but my six-year-old was screaming, full of fear.”

“You just heard everything being ripped away,” Craig said. “It lasted about two minutes, total.”

Jacob said, “I felt debris hitting me everywhere, I know my dad did. We held the kids tighter and stayed where we were. Like I said, I could hear the house being sucked up into the wind. It was a creaking sound and then, bang, it was gone. And we were down there in the dark. Then, suddenly, I could hear the whole floor above us get ripped up, I could hear it sucked into the clouds and there we were, in the basement, the sky opened up, there was no more dark, but light. That’s probably when I was at my scariest.”

Craig said, “That’s when I heard Jacob say, ‘Dad, the whole house is gone!’”

After what had to have seemed like an eternity, Miller arose from the devastation, his house having been lifted from its foundation and reduced to splinters, shattered throughout a largely decimated neighborhood.

Craig said, “It looked exactly like the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was only lacking the burned look.”

A single house remained in the neighborhood and that’s where the survivors congregated. “Most of the block was seeking shelter in the one house that was still standing. None of us really knew that neighbor, but that’s where we all gathered,” Miller said.

In the aftermath, Craig mounted a tractor and began moving trees and debris from the road so that traffic could get through — first responders, but also folks hoping to find loved ones who lived in the neighborhood.

Although neighbors and residents spontaneously came together to help one another — Craig said that a car load of Joplin residents stopped by to help and, when asked how much the help would cost, responded, “Nothing, we’re just here to help!” — Jacob said the vultures were out in force, looting doctors’ and dentists’ offices within less than an hour.

Indeed, as in any natural disaster, law enforcement reported that looters have been a problem, taking advantage of the disaster.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the lowest of the low attempting to take advantage of the tragedy. Various reports on the Joplin disaster posted on the Internet included ads by a car insurance company (a subsidiary of Experian, one of the three credit reporting agencies) that included a satellite view of a storm system like the one that devastated Joplin.

After numerous attempts to contact Experian regarding that ad, Gerry Tschopp, Senior Vice President of Public Relations for Experian, responded to an e-mail (almost three days after the disaster) with, “Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. We sincerely apologize for the insensitive timing of this ad, given the current storm-related crisis in the Midwest. To be clear, the ad had been running for some time before these storms hit. We are pulling it immediately from circulation.

“Our thoughts and sympathies are with those affected by the storms, and thank you again for alerting us.”

As of publication, no evidence of the ad remained.

Fortunately, the better angels of America have pulled together to assist the victims of Sunday’s storms. Jacob said that at Joplin’s hospital, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, “Cars were stacked on top of each other as if someone had been playing with Matchbox cars,” indicating the devastation there. As of press time Wednesday, medical workers from around the country had descended on Joplin to help provide alternative medical assistance to storm victims.

Indeed, as of Monday morning, social networking was abuzz with ways to assist residents of Joplin. In fact, it was through social networking sites that Jacob’s plight came to the attention of The SUN and numerous offers of assistance had been made from Pagosa Springs residents (as well as from around the country).

With everything lost, Jacob said that, “While clothes are good, we’re getting that from as far as places such as North Carolina. What would be better would be gift cards to places like Wal-Mart or Target.”

Jacob said that clothes for his sons — Jaxon, 2, and Jaydn (who turns 6 on June 11) — should include shoes sizes 7.5 and 12-13. Jacob’s wife, Beth (who was at work at the time), wears sizes 6-8 in pants, medium shirts and a 7.5 shoe size. Jacob is size 30-32 for pants, medium shirts and 8.5 for shoes.

Again, while clothes are a worthy donation, gift cards would help buy toiletries and other necessary items (especially birthday presents for Jaydn in two weeks).

Donations can be sent to: Jacob Miller, c/o Sandy Wike, 425 East 23rd St., Galena, KS 66739. Donations for all the victims of the Joplin storm can be made at www. redcross.org.

Jacob’s experience was life-changing and he said, “I’m ready to get out of here as soon as I can.”

Nonetheless, Jacob said Craig is prepared to stay, saying, “He feels he has a job to do, especially with the looters in the area.”

Another life-changing experience for Jacob, however, has been the spontaneous generosity of neighbors, far and wide.

“I sure appreciate everyone in Pagosa,” he said. “I never imagined there’d be so much help from so many different directions and from so many strangers.”

jim@pagosasun.com

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