Skyline High School graduate weathers Joplin tornado

May 31, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Only debris remains after a massive tornado leveled parts of Joplin, Mo. By Barrett Knox

Macy’s in shell-shocked Joplin, Mo., is a destination on a grim pilgrimage.

Skyline High School graduate Ashley Knox, a store employee and former Issaquah resident, encountered people shopping for clothes to replace wardrobes destroyed amid a catastrophic tornado and, as the death toll climbs higher, clothes for funerals.

Knox met a manager from The Home Depot searching for a dress shirt and orange tie for a coworker’s memorial service. Rescuers continued to recover bodies from the demolished home improvement store days after the disaster.

“We’re one of the few retailers in town that has dress clothes,” she said. “It’s kind of a small town, and we’ve been doing a lot of funeral suits and dress shirts this week.”

The scene is common as life and death mingle in the days after a monster tornado slammed the city May 22 and left more than 130 people dead.

Knox settled in Missouri to study elementary education at Ozark Christian College and graduated the day before the tornado sliced across Joplin.

“It took everyone by surprise and came out of nowhere,” she said. “It’s just huge — way bigger than anyone’s ever seen before.”

The tornado cut a mile-wide swath across Joplin, reducing neighborhoods and business districts to rubble. Meteorologists estimate wind speeds inside the twister exceeded 200 mph.

“The only way that I can describe this is, if a tornado started at Interstate 90 in Eastgate and took everything out down along 148th to 520,” said Knox’s father, Steven Copenhaver.

Ashley and Barrett Knox

Joplin is wedged in a corner of Southwest Missouri near the Kansas border, along historic U.S. Route 66 and in a region nicknamed Tornado Alley. The city claims about 50,000 residents.

Knox and husband Barrett joined relatives in nearby Halltown for a graduation celebration hours before the tornado struck. Lydia Copenhaver, Knox’s mother and a native Missourian, journeyed from Issaquah to Joplin for the ceremony.

The family returned to Joplin hours after the tornado. The twister flattened buildings about a mile from the Knoxes’ apartment, but left potted plants on a porch undisturbed.

“It was just so strange. I had driven in the area that the tornado hit just the day before,” Lydia Copenhaver recalled. “We sat there helplessly listening to area after area that the tornado hit. Barrett kept responding with ‘So and so lives there’ and then his fingers would start texting, to see if he could contact that person. My sister’s family and cousin’s family were in Joplin during it, but are fine.”

The storm knocked out electricity for many Joplin residents, but the Knoxes only lost Internet access and experienced a drop in water pressure.

Immediately, the Knoxes joined coworkers and friends from church in the disaster relief effort.

Ashley Knox and other College Heights Christian Church members staffed a distribution center for displaced people to collect clothing and toiletries.

“We had more donations than we can even handle, so it’s been great,” she said. “People have been very generous.”

In the meantime, aid poured in from across the United States and Joplin retooled to respond to the disaster. Missouri Southern State University, another college in Joplin, set up a makeshift shelter in a gymnasium.

“Everyone in the community, everybody from all over, from all different walks of life is here helping,” Ashley Knox said.

Barrett Knox, a Chik-fil-A employee and Ozark Christian College student, is coordinating teams preparing meals for relief teams and displaced people. Chik-fil-A operators from across the United States donated food to the effort. (Chik-fil-A is a chain of chicken sandwich restaurants popular in the South.)

“I’m blown away by the country’s support of our little town of Joplin,” Ashley Knox said. “It is just great to see our community and communities from all over take care of this town.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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