It was a hot and humid Sunday afternoon in Joplin, Missouri- May 11, 2011. Life would change forever.
Deedra Biggers was working at the Pizza Hut off Range Line Road. There was a shift change underway. She had no idea an EF5-rated tornado was barreling towards the restaurant.
“We knew about 7 minutes before it hit. We heard the sirens going off the first time and we had everybody come inside and I was hollering at people outside to come inside. And we saw the storm coming before the second set of tornado sirens went off,” Biggers said.
She said she could hear the storm more than she could see it. A storm so loud, she said a freight train would not do it justice.
She, the other employees, and customers knew it was time to rush to shelter.
“Our protocol was supposed to be to go into the walk-in cooler. Because it had the tie-downs on it and that was supposed to be our safe spot, but you could look at the walls and it was Styrofoam.”
AFTER THE STORM
The tornado demolished so much in its path; the town was unrecognizable to many of its longtime residents.
“It was surreal. When you stood up after the tornado it was nothing but flatness as far as you could see. Living here for 30 years, I couldn’t find my way around town,” Biggers said.
10 years later and the storm has changed the way she lives- doing whatever she can to be alert and ready for the worst.
“I never thought it would happen to me. I always thought I was not afraid of storms, but what was in them. That is exactly what this was, it was what was in them. You have to be aware of it because you don’t know. You know, it can spontaneously-just all of a sudden, the conditions do ripen for the right bad weather, and you have to be prepared for it. It’s better to be cautious than to regret next week that you didn’t.”
She is in charge of the NOAA Weather Radio at work and even if it is just a “watch,” she turns up the volume as loud as it goes so everyone can hear it. At home, her kids know to pack their backpacks with medication, water, bike helmets and mattresses for head protection, blankets, and other essential supplies.
She was always told to be prepared for storms, but May 22, 2011 brought a new sense of importance.
“My parents taught me how to be prepared and it became…it wasn’t my action plan until the tornado. And that’s when I adopted it and realized the wisdom in it.”
SURVIVING THE STORM
Biggers sustained minor injuries, but not everyone walked away from the Pizza Hut. Manager Chris Lucas risked his life holding the door of the cooler shut for as long as he could.
“He did his best to try to secure the situation and gave his life for the rest of us. And I think his Mom needs to know that. I think she’d be very proud of him.”
It was a heroic gesture Biggers and the others will always remember.
Chris Lucas was one of 160 people that died in Joplin as a result of the tornado.
It is a reminder that when a tornado watch is issued, pay attention. When a warning is issued, take action immediately.