Lessons from another storm
“Even today, you can stand on what passes for a hill in Joplin's midsection, at 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, look east and look west and see empty space. The trees are still gone. Apartment complexes are gone. The hospital is gone. The high schoo
IF you didn't live through Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, it's hard to fathom the extent of the destruction. Photos and videos go only so far. You simply cannot understand it if you haven't been through it. Unfortunately, plenty of Americans have been through it, in one form or another. And their empathy about the length of the recovery runs deep. "I hope they don't get discouraged, because it does take a long time," said Raye Frerer of Joplin, Mo., where a tornado left a 14-mile scar last year. "Here we are, 18 months later, and we're still not back in our home."
Even today, you can stand on what passes for a hill in Joplin's midsection, at 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, look east and look west and see empty space. The trees are still gone. Apartment complexes are gone. The hospital is gone. The high school is gone.
That's what happens when an EF-5 tornado touches down, eviscerating everything in its path, as it did here on Sunday, May 22, 2011. Winds reaching 250 miles per hour tore homes and other buildings from their foundations and sent debris flying for miles, and 161 people died.
As Joplin's residents make their way through the stages of grief, they are eager to talk about it. They want to share how they survived and how they're preparing for the next one, because they now understand that this kind of disaster can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. We all know the risks, and we promptly learn to ignore them. After all, you can't function very well if you live in daily fear of disaster.
But you can prepare yourself for the possibility, however remote, that something like what happened to the people of Joplin or New Orleans, or Northridge, Calif., or New York City and the surrounding areas last month will happen to you. And one of the easiest steps you can take is to disaster-proof your finances.
The tornado here caused nearly $3 billion in damage. Some 61,000 insurance claims were filed, with a total payout of more than $2 billion. Of that, 31 percent went to homeowners and 5 percent to people who lost their cars and trucks.
But many people did not get as much relief as they had expected. The long road back to financial wellness has been more difficult than it perhaps had to be. And those lessons have stayed with them.
Ms. Frerer, 58, was at her mother's home south of Joplin that Sunday afternoon. They were celebrating Mother's Day a week late, and her mother, who is close to 80, looked out the window from a small breakfast nook and said, "That's the blackest cloud I've ever seen!" Ms. Frerer turned to her husband, Fred, and told him she didn't want to get her hair wet, so maybe it was time to head home.
Mr. Frerer, 60, is retired, and Ms. Frerer is a teacher. When they got to their house in Joplin, Mr. Frerer stood in the road to check the sky. When he came back in, he grabbed a twin mattress from one of the beds, and the two of them settled onto the floor of their small bathroom with the mattress on their heads.
"My chest started getting tight and my ears, all of a sudden they started popping," Ms. Frerer said. "They must have popped hundreds of times. And I thought, 'Lord, what on earth am I going to do?' I thought, 'God, I'm prepared to meet you.' "
She had been through tornadoes before, and they usually sounded like freight trains. "This one sounded like World War III," she said. "You could feel it, almost like a cosmic tug of war between good and evil."
The house shook, objects pummeled the walls outside the bathroom, and then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the storm ended.
They stood up from under the mattress and opened the bathroom door. Ms. Frerer could see that the nearby middle school had been destroyed, and she wondered whether there would be school tomorrow. Then she realized she shouldn't be able to see outside. "I stepped into the hall, and the only part of that house still standing was the bathroom that we were in," she said. Money issues take an obvious back seat to the imminent possibility of death at moments like this. But they surface fairly soon after.