The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 14, 2011

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Safe room will always be reminder of May 22

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni

PITTSBURG, Kan. — The afternoon of May 22, I emailed a story to my editor from my home office just before the tornado sirens sounded in Pittsburg.

As we always do, my husband and I scooped up our two young boys and my laptop, jumped in the truck, and drove down our lane to our neighbors who have a basement.

They know to open the garage door so we can head downstairs until the all-clear sign comes. It’s not always convenient — sometimes it’s 10 p.m. and the boys are asleep.

That day, the tornado avoided the Pittsburg area entirely.

Little did I know it was instead leveling much of Joplin, including many of my colleagues’ homes.

The first week of covering the tornado’s aftermath, standing in my rubber boots amid piles of rubble searching for survivors to interview, left me shell-shocked.

My husband immediately decided to order a residential safe room. “No more trips down the lane with our boys,” he said.

It took two months for it to be manufactured, owing to the uptick in orders that the Neosho-based company received in the days after May 22.

Finally, on Thursday morning, two men arrived with our big, red, steel lifesaver, some 2,500 pounds, which they unloaded from the trailer and bolted to our garage floor.

Already on a tight budget, I worried that we were biting off more than we could chew financially.

I also felt a little guilty. My home was far from being touched by the storm’s wrath, and several of those colleagues who lost homes still don’t have new ones.

Research told us this safe room would withstand an EF-5, and many of the photographs of the Joplin destruction showed such safe rooms still standing. Who knew where the next tornado might form?

We did the right thing.

We got busy stocking our new safe room based on Federal Emergency Management Agency recommendations: bottled water, nonperishable food items, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a battery-operated emergency radio, extra batteries, a wrench (to turn off household gas and water), an extra change of clothes for each of us, and a pair of gloves in the event we needed to dig our way out.

We also decided to store an external hard drive with our family’s digital photographs in it. We were ready.

We tried our cellphones inside it; they did not work.

I made a note to call Pittsburg fire Chief Scott Crain and Emergency Manager Eldon Bedene to see if there is a database inventory to which we can add our safe room. Jasper County, Mo., is one jurisdiction that has such a registry in order to save time for first responders, but we aren’t sure about Crawford County.

When it was all said and done, I surprised myself by crying a little, like I have so many days in the past two months. I realized that each time I open the garage door, I will see a big, red, steel reminder of May 22 and all I’ve witnessed since.

But I am relieved, as now we’ll be able to protect our boys, and ourselves, much better than we have before.