John Ford: Shelter from the storm

John Ford

At least two Neosho residents were temporary refugees from Monday’s tornadoes that struck Barry County: Myself and Phyllis.

On Monday afternoon, I had a doctor’s appointment in Springfield. Afterward, and after a quick picnic lunch in a park across from Parkview High School’s athletic fields, we headed back home.

We were near Monett when an ominous sight greeted us. There, directly before us, was a wall cloud, hanging low on the highway.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say tornadoes come out of those,” Phyllis said.

We drove on toward Monett, discussing our options. Should we try to make it home?

Should we find a place to lay low? Should we pull over and lie down in a ditch?

At a stop light on the edge of town, I rolled my window down to hear the scream of tornado sirens.

“Wal-Mart’s up ahead!” Phyllis exclaimed. “Let’s head there and wait it out.”

We drove onto the Wal-Mart parking lot while the sirens gave their baleful howl. Rolling up our windows, we quickly walked into the store. Several Wal-Mart employees were watching the skies.

“We’re under a Code Black, tornado warning!” one woman told us. “You can leave or you can go to the very back of the store in layaway.”

We chose the second option, hurriedly making our way to the back of the store along with about 150 others.

We stood and waited with the others for a while. Wal-Mart workers bearing pillows made their way through the crowd until everyone had one. These, we learned, would be placed over our heads when the tornado struck. We were warned about staying away from the skylights.

We waited. And waited. And waited some more. After a while, several people got restless, and began wandering the aisles.

Then everything went black momentarily, as the store lost power. Emergency floodlights quickly kicked on.

“Everyone please listen to me!” one employee shouted. “We need anyone with babies or young children to get into the bathrooms. If you have babies or children, please take them into the bathrooms.”

Another employee reported seeing a funnel cloud above the Burger King restaurant located next door to Wal-Mart.

Rain pounded the roof overhead. Then all was quiet. Too quiet.

An employee then shouted “Get down! Get down!”

A rushing roar could be heard as rain and hail pounded down.

Then, as quickly as it came, it was gone again. Soon, the fluorescents flickered briefly, then came back on to full power. Dozens of televisions came back to life in the electronics department.

After hearing the next storm was at least 30 minutes away, several of those present began making their way to the front, to return to their homes.

However, about 50 of us were unable to do so because Highway 37 south of Monett was closed. Later, we discovered it was because a tornado struck a trailer park midway between Monett and Purdy.

Phyllis and I inquired about getting to Neosho, and received reports that tornadoes were heading east from Pineville and Rocky Comfort at about 45 miles an hour.

“It will be in Granby in about 20 minutes,” one worker told us.

Phyllis and I looked at each other, each realizing that would be about the time we would hit that eastern Newton County community.

“Let’s wait it out,” we said, almost in unison.

It’s strange when you’ve been with someone a long time, you almost begin to think alike.

We wanted something to drink, but none of the vending machines were working. And we couldn’t buy anything, because the power outage knocked out the cash registers and the store was officially closed.

Then Phyllis remembered our picnic lunch. We had a half a gallon of water out in the truck and some plastic glasses. She brought these inside while I enjoyed a bathroom break. We then headed back to the back of the store.

Phyllis called relatives, letting them know how to get into our home to take care of our cats. Just in case.

I called Todd Higdon so someone from the paper would know where we were. Just in case.

I looked around, and dozens of people had out cell phones making their own telephone calls to family, friends, loved ones. Just in case.

None of us were saying just in case of what.

Instead, we sat in chairs, on benches, on the floor. Each of us had a pillow or two tucked beside us. More pillows were in nearby shopping carts. Again, just in case.

And after several tense moments of waiting, it hit. Rain and hail could again be heard pounding the Wal-Mart roof.

And again, as quickly as it came, it was gone.

Phyllis and I shared a look. Do we dare try it?

We did. Thanking workers for letting us take shelter there for the past two and a half hours, we left the Monett Wal-Mart to the sounds of silence. The sirens had stopped. The rain had mostly stopped.

We made it safely to Neosho around 8:30 p.m., thank goodness, stopping for a quick supper at Braums before heading home.

As I write this, I’m thankful for a lot of things. I’m thankful we had some water and a flashlight in our truck. I’m thankful that it wasn’t worse. It could have been so much worse.

And I’m thankful for the kind folks at the Monett Wal-Mart who took in dozens of refugees from the storm, even after the store had lost power and closed for the night.

If you ever find yourself on the road and you see a wall cloud ahead, take shelter immediately. Find a store, a gas station, a police or fire station or even a ditch. It’s better to be safe than to be sorry.

And carry a bottle or two of water in your vehicle. Just in case.