Mormon stake center destroyed: 'Incomprehensible' damage in Joplin, Mo.
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Joplin Missouri Stake President Creed R. Jones frantically texted his daughters: "Tornado!"
He and his wife, Renel, were returning home from their youngest daughter's high school graduation on May 22 when they saw the swirling ahead and recognized danger.
They pulled up next to a cement building and tried to get out of the car. The pressure outside, however, stopped them.
"We sat there in the car and rocked and rumbled and rolled," he recalled.
For the next hour and a half, President Jones frantically tried to reach his daughters, Lynelle, 21, and Alayna, 17.
"We thought we had lost them. We didn't know. Finally I got a text that came through from my oldest daughter. It said, 'We are OK.'"
President Jones asked his daughters where they were. "Can't go home," he wrote. "It's gone."
He and his wife stopped everything and "had a good cry ... just so grateful that what was important, we still had. We didn't care about anything else."
The devastating tornado ripped through the heart of Joplin — a community of 50,000 people in southwest Missouri — and left at least 122 people dead and injured more than 750.
All missionaries in the affected areas are safe and accounted for. Two Church members were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries after the storm, said President Matthew G. Montague, first counselor in the Joplin Missouri Stake.
The United States' deadliest tornado in more than 50 years destroyed or significantly damaged as many as 25 percent of the buildings in Joplin, including a hospital, a high school and scores of homes and businesses.
President Montague said the damage to the city is "incomprehensible," noting that many areas are simply unrecognizable.
The homes of at least 10 member families in Joplin were destroyed; dozens more were damaged.
In addition, the Joplin Missouri Stake Center was destroyed; a group of single adults in the building during the storm took refuge in a restroom and were not seriously injured.
President Jones said the prayers and collective faith of so many have been felt in Joplin.
"You see the miracles that occur on an hourly or minute basis in people's lives," he said "It is kind of interesting that in the direst of circumstances it becomes so clear to many to see the hand of the Lord."
President Montague said the Church will rebuild the Joplin stake center. As the structure rises again, it will be "in a very real way a beacon on the hill to the city of Joplin," he added.
Bishop Christopher E. Hoffman of the Joplin 1st Ward said, for the most part, Church members are others in the community are doing well.
"The shell shock is starting to wear off and reality is starting to set in," he said. "It is just tough."
When asked how many members lost homes in the disaster, he numbered them individually instead of collectively. In the hours after the storm — when he could not reach ward members by phone — he gathered a group of men and visited what was left of their homes.
"Those members were just so happy to see us there," he said. "You just rely on the Spirit ... and somehow it works out."
Both Bishop Hoffman and President Montague report that they have been overwhelmed with Church groups offering assistance.
"It is an extremely emotional thing for families when they realize the complexity of what is happening," said Bishop Hoffman. "At the same time, you see so many good, positive people willing to help and alleviate the suffering. I am sure that will be the way it is for the next several months."
As of press time, local leaders were organizing a massive Latter-day Saint volunteer effort that is planned to continue every weekend for the next two months. Members from neighboring stakes will travel to Joplin. In addition, a truckload of supplies has been sent from Church headquarters to assist with cleanup efforts.
President Montague said it is touching to see members who have lost homes wanting to serve others.
In one instance, he said, a ward Relief Society president's home was damaged. But she simply said, "I would love to help. Put me to work."
There is selflessness at every turn and in every conversation, President Montague said.
"In every single conversation with our members, the objective and hope to rebuild is only exceeded by their desire to reach out and help others," he said.
President Jones said he has been the recipient of such love and concern. As the vice president of human resources for a large company in Joplin, the stake president and a victim himself, he found his attention directed three ways. "I have been very much strengthened to just keep going and going," he said. "In some ways, I am stronger than I thought. In some ways, I am not as strong as I thought."
When President and Sister Jones finally connected with their daughters the night of the tornado, they learned of their horrific experience. When the girls received a tornado warning from their father, they tried to enter a convenience store, which was closed. Forced back in the car, they took cover. "They ducked and the thing exploded. They said it was a giant explosion, just shards of glass going everywhere," President Jones said.
The wind carried the car. President Jones said it looks like it has been through a crusher or a battering ram.
A few days after the storm, the sisters returned to their car and left a message with blue paint: "Lynelle and Alayna survived in this car!" they wrote.