June 22, 2011 Edition

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Sandra Snodgrass (right) of Joplin, Mo., came to Walnut Ridge for a Father's Day visit with her parents, Jewell (left) and Pearl Mitchell, this past weekend. It was her first visit to her hometown since the May 22 tornado devastated Joplin. month ago today.

Walnut Ridge native regaining
foothold after Joplin tornado

John Bland

The Joplin, Mo., tornado destroyed her house, her jobs and much of the city she knew, but Walnut Ridge native Sandra Mitchell Snodgrass still finds much to be grateful for.

Snodgrass, her husband, Jim, their children and grandchildren were not injured, and their children's homes were not damaged.

Snodgrass spent the past weekend in Walnut Ridge visiting her parents, Jewell and Pearl Mitchell. It was her first visit here since the tornado devastated Joplin a month ago today. A recent count shows the tornado's death toll at 153 and its ranking as the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history.

"Things are getting better," Snodgrass said on Friday at The TD, while recalling the events leading up to and after that life-altering day.

Jim and Sandra had been to their weekend cabin on Grand Lake O' the Cherokee at Grove, Okla., approximately 40 miles from their Joplin home. "The sun was shining; it was a nice day," she said. They had had no TV weather reports while at the lake as their TV was not hooked up at the time.

They arrived at home that Sunday afternoon around 4:30 and had Jim's two granddaughters, Makayla, age 11, and Makenzie, age 6, with them.

Sandra had offered to take the two granddaughters out for frozen yogurt, but they were not interested. Instead, they opted to have ice cream sundaes at the Snodgrass home.

At some point, Jim reported that a big storm was coming. Sandra recalled standing in the kitchen making the sundaes when they lost TV reception and then electricity.

In the meantime, Sandra's son, Spence Spencer, had also called and told them to take cover. Spence's wife, Kristi, is news director for KOAM-TV in Joplin and kept up with the news.

"Nana, I'm scared," said Makenzie.

To calm the girls, Sandra said they took their ice cream to a bathroom. She got pillows, and the girls got in the bathtub. She sat on the edge of the tub holding the girls' hands, while Jim sat in the floor and held the door shut with his feet.

"'Lord, just keep us safe,' I prayed," Sandra said.

"Girls, let's sing 'Jesus Loves Me,'" she told them.

By then, they were well aware that a severe storm had hit by the sounds of the roaring winds and breaking glass. At 5:40 p.m., just over an hour after their return home, the Joplin tornado had arrived. The tornado first hit Joplin from the southwest side and continued its devastation through southeast Joplin, where the Snodgrasses live.

The aftermath

They emerged from the bathroom to find a kitchen cabinet door in the hallway, contents from the kitchen strewn through much of the house, shattered glass and sky visible through rafters.

Jim opened their front door, and said, "There's nothing there," referring to the houses across the street. Sandra explained that the homes across their street are on higher ground, while their side is lower.

"We were fine. We walked out of the house without a scratch on us," said Sandra.

Other Joplin residents were obviously not as lucky, and much of the city was destroyed. "Everything I ever went to in Joplin (except for the mall in north Joplin) was destroyed," Sandra said. The high school, two grade schools, the hospital, restaurants, including the area near a Home Depot where they would have gone for frozen yogurt, were all destroyed, she added.

Sandra is manager of a 100-unit apartment complex called Hampshire Terrace, located three miles from their home. "I never dreamed it was destroyed," she said, her first thought being that they could move to an empty unit there.

However, the Hampshire Terrace complex was destroyed, as was the 40-unit JMA apartment complex, for which Sandra serves as managing agent. Only one resident died at Hampshire Terrace, while five people lost their lives at JMA.

The tornado destroyed 10 apartment complexes and two others were heavily damaged. Sandra said the Hampshire Terrace apartments will probably not be rebuilt.

"It's just nothing you could ever believe unless you saw it," she said of the disaster.

Two New York City firemen who came to Joplin to help with recovery efforts agreed with Sandra. Since 9-11, the firemen have been traveling to various areas of the country to help other disaster victims. "This is the worst we've ever seen; worse than Tuscaloosa," they said.

After the tornado, Jim and Sandra were separated for a few hours. Jim, who is a paramedic, had gone with an injured neighbor who was in need of medical attention.

Sandra and the granddaughters were able to drive out of their neighborhood. Like many others, they were just driving, trying to get away from the tornado ravaged area.

They ended up in the neighborhood where Sandra knew the board president of her apartment complex resided. His home was not damaged, and by 9:30 that night, she and Jim were reunited.

Sandra was also thankful that her son, Spence, was able to contact her father in Walnut Ridge to let him know that they were all OK before he heard about the tornado on the news.

Jim and Sandra spent the first week after the tornado living with Jim's son, Jeff, in Webb City, Mo., just north of Joplin. Jim has another son, Jason, who lives in Carthage, Mo.

Spence lives in nearby Carl Junction, Mo. "He took a week off, and he helped us every day."

Jim and Sandra are now living at their lake house, but they plan to rebuild. On Friday, Jim met with an insurance agent and a contractor to talk about rebuilding their home and possibly using the existing foundation and some framework.

August would be the earliest that they could begin construction but they hope that tearing down of the remains of the structure can start soon. She said there is no electricity in their neighborhood and still too much rubble to work around.

"It's been hard," Sandra stated, noting that she went to two funerals in one day.

The first Sunday, a week after the tornado had hit, "I started getting sick to my stomach," Sandra said of the memories of that previous Sunday.

The Snodgrasses have good friends in Joplin that they don't get to see much now. However, they were able to go out to eat recently with two other couples at a Joplin restaurant that was still in operation. "It almost felt normal," she said.

As she reflected on the tragedy, Sandra remains thankful. While at a Memorial Day family cookout, Spence's five-year-old son, Jack, gave the prayer. He prayed for Joplin and all the people effected by the tornado and his grandparents. "It was so touching," Sandra said.

Sandra is also thankful their granddaughters did not want to go out for yogurt and were frightened enough to encourage Jim and her to take cover.

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