The tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in May destroyed a third of the town and killed 162 people. While the storm lasted just minutes, the psychological damage continues, and the community is mobilizing to cope with continuing trauma. The city’s children are dealing with both the unsettling effects of the tornado and what the loss, disruption and heartache is doing to their parents.
Just months ago, 3-year-old Allie Stout was cowering in a hallway beneath her parents — and a violently flapping mattress — as the monster tornado ripped her house apart. In seconds, Allie’s world flipped upside down: room gone, toys gone, parents hurt, dog missing. Weeks ago, she was still “playing tornado” all the time.
“We spin around in circles,” she says, “and we get in a house, and we lie down, and it’s blasting off, and we have to lie on the ground.”
Allie’s mother, Tiffany Stout, says her daughter slips into this grim play in groups and alone, here in the family’s freshly furnished, but sparsely decorated, new house.
“It’s nothing for us to go back into her room and hear her telling her ‘babies’ that it’s time to take cover,” Stout says, “and they have to lay down on the floor and put their hands over their heads and hold on tight, pray — pray for God’s protection and pray that they make it through the storm.”
It’s not easy, Stout says, seeing your daughter relive the worst moments of her life, over and over and over again. But apparently, it’s normal.
“As adults we often talk things through. A child, particularly younger children, will play things through,” says Charles Graves, a psychiatrist who’s treating kids in Joplin.
“Mostly, you see signs and symptoms of fear,” he says. “So they may be agitated, angry.”
Most children shake it off in a few weeks; others struggle with mental illness. Either way, Graves says, early trauma undermines a child’s ability to cope with stress later.
“The more bad things that have happened to you, the worse off you are,” he says. “The pump has been primed.”
That goes for adults, too. Some here have lost almost everything — homes, jobs, loved ones. Most are holding up OK, but not all. And when they don’t, children can get hurt.
In Joplin, there’s been an increase in drug and alcohol abuse. There’s also been an increase in serious gambling issues — like taking your insurance check and losing it in one night at a casino, something which has happened multiple times.
As a result, even some children who have managed to cope well with the tornado are being traumatized by adults who have not.
“There’s been a fairly significant increase in sexual trauma to children,” says Vicky Mieseler, vice president for clinical services at the Ozark Center, which offers mental health services for children and adults.
Mieseler figures that maybe 700-800 children here will need therapy. And she’s building just the place for it.
On a ridge overlooking miles of splintered trees and the beaten shell of a hospital, workers are turning a tornado-hammered building into a children’s trauma center.
“This is a healing place,” Mieseler says, “a place where you come to feel better.”
But that healing can be slow to come.
Fifty-four years ago, when Carolyn Brewer was 7, an F-5 tornado obliterated her neighborhood in Ruskin Heights, Mo.
“It only takes 30 seconds to destroy your life and your home and your community and the outlines of everything that you know, but it stays with you forever,” she says.
Ruskin Heights shows virtually no sign of the catastrophe today. But the memories are still raw, Brewer says. She interviewed dozens of her childhood neighbors for a book called Caught Ever After.
“Many of them are still afraid,” she says. “In fact, a woman sent me an email a couple of weeks ago that said, ‘I still have nightmares that the tornado is chasing me, and it has eyes, and it’s looking for me specifically.'”
That’s after more than half a century. Back in Joplin, not four months have passed since the tornado. Allie’s turned 4, and Tiffany Stout says both her children are getting better, although it doesn’t take much to set them off.
“It can be anything — from being outside and the wind blowing hard, or the sky getting dark,” she says. “Instantly they ask if the tornado is coming back and if our house is going to get blown away again, if we’re going to get hurt.”
Stout says that while her family will never be the same, their post-tornado life is better in many ways, with more gratitude, more time for each other.
Even the lucky ones are continuing to grapple with psychological fallout that often remains long after the twister moves on.