THE BLOG

Sharing Stories After the Joplin Tornado

09/26/2011 05:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2011

It wasn't the first book signing I had ever held, but it certainly will go down as the most memorable.

As my co-author John Hacker and I were preparing for the first signing for 5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado, we quickly found out there were many more stories that are waiting to be told.

During the four hours we were at Hastings Books in Joplin Saturday, we heard terrifying stories, some sad, some uplifting of the May 22 event that forever reshaped the lives of Joplin residents.

"When the tornado was over," one woman, who was in the 15th Street Wal-Mart when it hit told me, "there were only four of us. We couldn't see anyone else." After a while, they did find the others who had survived, but for a few agonizing moments they believed they were the only ones who had survived out of the 300 or so who were in the store at 5:41 p.m.

John Hacker arrived in the middle of the tornado-stricken area only moments after it occurred and after helping with rescue efforts, began collecting some of the stories that were included in the book. He did not have to ask questions. People were already volunteering what they had just lived through.

It was the same way Saturday. John and I shared the stage with a few of those who contributed stories. One of my former students, Laela Zaidi, managed to get away from a Joplin High School tennis tournament to sign a few copies of the book. Laela, whose family came to the U.S. from Pakistan, not only lost her house in the tornado, but most of her extended family also lost their homes and belongings. Even as his house was being destroyed, Laela's father, a doctor at St. John's Hospital, which was destroyed by the tornado, was doing his best to keep up with the thousands who needed help that evening.

Denton Williams, a high school freshman who was still in his eighth grade year when the tornado hit, was at a band competition and was unable to make it. His middle school, the one where I teach, was destroyed. Denton's story, as well as some of mine about the school, is featured in the volume.

Kristin Huke, a Carthage artist, was visiting a family member at Freeman when that hospital began handling the brunt of the emergency work after St. John's, just a short distance away, was struck by the violent storm. Her story was also included in the book.

Gary Harrall, a Diamond High School graduate, and another former student of mine, told of waiting the storm out in a basement shelter as his house was blown away. When it was over, Gary, who has a rural upbringing decided that Joplin, the big city, was no place for him.

Some were unable to make it, including those who came to Joplin from far away to offer assistance and then later contributed stories for the book.

I knew all of those stories, but not the new ones that were told Saturday. Everyone who came through the line had another story to share. For some, it had happened to them personally; others related stories from friends and relatives.

Among those who came were the grandparents of Joplin High School graduate Will Norton, the YouTube celebrity who was killed only a short time after receiving his diploma during graduation ceremonies at Missouri Southern State University. Will is featured in a couple of the stories in 5:41.

As you might expect, the family has had a hard time dealing with the loss of one so young, with so much promise.

The signing reminded me of the book itself -- a mixture of sad, humorous, and tragic, with an emphasis on survival and fighting back.

If there was one refrain I heard over and over again Saturday it was, "We're not going to let this tornado beat us." It was phrased different times in different words, but always with the same message.

The stories in the book, although representative of what happened during the tornado and its aftermath, are just a handful of the thousands that will be told for years to come.

Though I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share some of those stories in 5:41, the last thing I ever wanted this book to be was simply a recounting of horror stories.

Hopefully, the message that shines through will be the one that I received Saturday -- Though the events of May 22 were devastating, it takes more than an EF-5 tornado to bring Joplin to its knees. We are planning to use a portion of the proceeds to publish a similar book next summer recounting the students of Joplin East Middle School and their first year attending school in a warehouse in an industrial park, as well as their stories of the cataclysmic event that made that move necessary. We intend to make sure that every student and staff member at East receive a copy of that book.

One of the stories in 5:41 contributed by my co-author, John Hacker, captured the spirit of Joplin. Samaritan's Purse, the organization which offers help to communities hit by disaster, was featured in that chapter.

The local organizer for the relief effort spoke of having one Joplin resident after another, many of whom had lost their houses and everything they owned coming to offer their help to others who might need it more.

That story captures the spirit of Joplin.