'It was on us in no time at all' - Leavenworth resident recalls Joplin tornado

Tim Linn

On May 29, Rick Nichols of Leavenworth said his church, First Presbyterian Church, conducted a tornado drill.

He said the exercise was an important way to refresh the members of the congregation on procedures in the case of a disaster. And Nichols said he now knows from experience the true importance of being prepared for such a disaster — a week before, he huddled with a group of other people in an IHOP restaurant in Joplin, Mo., caught in the path of an EF5 tornado.

That weekend, he said and other family members had attended a memorial service for his father and, on May 22, a high-school graduation ceremony for his niece, Amanda White, at the campus of Missouri Southern University in Joplin, Mo.

Even when the nine family members entered the Joplin IHOP restaurant at about 5 p.m. that evening following the graduation ceremony, Nichols said there was no clear indication of the twister that would later destroy about 20 percent of the town and claim the lives of more than 100 people.

“There was a light rain at the time. The clouds were there,” he said. “But they didn’t look ominous.”

Reports started to surface on what could be coming — the touchdown of a tornado on Schifferdecker Avenue, a main north-south route through the city. The power went out in the restaurant. Nichols said his brother-in-law, Missouri State Rep. Bill White, continuously checked his cell phone for more information and saw radar forecasts of the storm cell. But the best indication of how immediate the danger was came not from the internet, but when White looked in the sky itself.

“It’s clear outside and he looks up in the sky there, and that’s when he sees debris up in the sky,” Nichols said. “At that point, he knew that this wasn’t just a rainstorm.”

Soon after, Nichols said the customers in the restaurant were told to get to a safe place.

“It was on us in no time at all,” he said of the storm.

Nichols said his mother Peg, of Olathe, Kan., and his 11-year-old niece Jera White headed for the kitchen. Others, like Amanda White and her boyfriend, stood in the walk-in refrigerator.

For two or three minutes, Nichols said he and the others were hunkered down in the kitchen as the tornado ripped the area apart. He said the IHOP is situated at 21st Street and Range Line Road in Joplin — as he understood it, there were a number of the casualties reported just a block away at 20th and Range Line. A number of nearby big box stores nearby were “pancaked,” Nichols said.

“It was loud enough,” he said of the noise level as the storm passed. “But I could still hear the people praying next to me.”

When it was all over, Nichols said the survivors emerged to find the north wall of the restaurant gone and debris strewn everywhere. A program from the high school graduation was found tattered and a cousin’s home was completely destroyed. But Nichols said the none of the 36 or so people in the restaurant were seriously hurt.

“We feel very lucky to be alive,” he said. “It’s by the grace of God, or the mercy of God, one or the other, that we’re alive.”

Since that day, Nichols said he has been back once to visit his sister Ellen Nichols, Bill White’s wife, a surgeon at Freeman Hospital in Joplin. He said while the family’s house was undamaged, they have been hosting people in their home and Ellen’s hospital has been overrun with patients as the larger hospital in Joplin, St. John’s, was almost completely destroyed in the storm.

Photos and news footage of the devastation does not begin to describe what he saw.

“There’s nothing like the naked eye,” he said.

Because of that, since May 22 Rick said he has kept an ear out for the storm warning sirens.

“You take them seriously,” he said.

Leavenworth Times