JOPLIN - People in Joplin are still cleaning up from the tragic tornado two years ago. But as houses are built and trees replanted, the scars from the disastrous storm remain for many residents. KOMU-8 News spoke with four seniors at Joplin High School about their memories of May 22, 2011. They lost their school building in the tornado and spent their final two years of high school in makeshift classrooms at the mall.
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Before May 22, 2011, people largely ignored the sound of sirens in Joplin.
"Sirens going off in Joplin, it's not a big deal usually," said 18-year-old Abe Hueller. "People just ignore it cause nothing ever happens ever."
Hueller's classmate and friend Lane Freeborn agreed with that sentiment. "When a storm came you went outside and you watched it. Sirens weren't a big deal," he said.
Graduation day 2011 was no different: dark skies, loud sirens, and then the EF5 tornado struck the Southwest Missouri town.
"They were saying Wal-Marts gone, Home Depot is gone, the high school is gone and it's just like 'okay, it's not gone. There's some damage we think,'" Hueller remembered. "Until we start coming into town, there was debris falling on the car and then we could really see what was going on and how graphic it was that you wouldn't want anyone to be a part of... ever."
Abe Hueller, Lane Freeborn, Diana Vu and Cody Adkins are all graduates in the Joplin High Class of 2013. The tornado took their school, their gym, and a third of their town. Material things. And it sounds like a cliche, but they say the storm also took their innocence.
"Having to deal with so much, losing friends," said Diana Vu. "At one point we have to grow up, but it's just too soon for them."
"It's just one of those things where you can't say anything to anyone cause you don't know why the sky turns black, you don't know why something like that would even happen but it does," said Cody Adkins.
Adkins now wants to be a first responder. Two years ago, he was working the front lines and helping strangers moments after the storm.
"In times of need you look to someone to say are you okay? Here's a bottle of water," Adkins said.
That's when his phone rang: a call from his mom at the morgue. She was okay but his best friend, 16-year-old Lantz Hare, was dead. Hare was an avid biker and a straight-A student.
"I was sad but how can you stop a tornado from hurting people or stop your friend from being gone," Adkins said. "It hurt a lot but I know that he is in a better place than I am."
Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff has kept a close eye on this year's senior.
"Tremendous amount of poise and tremendous amount of leadership," Huff said. "They had to grow up a lot. They've been a fantastic class to work with this year and I keep hearing great things about them. They've shown tremendous leadership and they've set the bar pretty high just as the Class of 2012 did."
Just as the class of 2013 had to grow up in a hurry, the Joplin school district wants this new high school built in a hurry. In Joplin, there's only one high school and it is the identity of Joplin. It is probably not easy waking up every morning and going to school in a mall.
"I miss having a normal high school with a gym in it. That's the big thing for me," said Hueller.
The makeshift 'mall high' houses kids mature beyond their years.
"There's no fights. Usually in high school you'll see fights," said Adkins "People are a lot more emotionally connected."
As the students remember their friend Lantz, these recent Joplin graduates will take into life lessons learned over a tough two year stretch.
"Don't take anything for granted because a lot of it can be taken away in a few seconds," Hueller said.
Never forgetting this could happen again: the tornado that transformed their town.
"They say lighting never strikes the same place twice. But they don't say anything about a tornado," Adkins said.
The Joplin mall will still house the juniors and seniors next school year. The freshmen and sophomores are at another location. But all four classes will be back together when the new high school is expected to open in August 2014.