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Over that hill, a nursing home in ruins

December 12, 2011
by Kevin Kolus, Editor
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Lessons emerge from a disaster beyond measure

A mother and her son are at the edge of what was once a familiar city, trying to fathom the mess Tom and Jerri have gotten themselves into. Tom and Jerri Anne Guidry, that is—an older couple and friends of the family. Minutes before, when cellphones still held signals in Joplin, Mo., the Guidrys described the sound of a terrible storm blowing away their home while they curled up inside a closet.

So here's Lisa Cantrell and her 19-year-old son, on a rescue mission, heading into the unknown. Cantrell, who happens to be an experienced health professional—the co-founder and chief clinical officer of the Joplin-based National Association of Health Care Assistants—can't comprehend what she sees. After living here for 47 years, her entire life, Cantrell doesn't recognize the landscape and rubble before her, or the people crawling up from underneath. Matthew, a second-year college student home on summer break, is at Cantrell's side, although she now questions having brought him into such an extraordinary circumstance.

They're about a mile and a half from the Guidrys' home, unable to drive any farther as the streets are littered with unquantifiable amounts of debris. It's well into the evening, wet and chilly. Cantrell is wearing blue jeans, work boots, a tank top, t-shirt and three lightweight jackets. Her shoulder was operated on last month and stiffens up painfully in the cold, hence the extra layers. She's also carrying a first-aid bag previously thrown together for volunteer disaster work. It holds the basics: CPR shield, stethoscope, roll gauze, sterile saline, tourniquets, flashlights, bandage scissors, hemostats and a Swiss Army knife.

The further they move into Joplin, the more overwhelming the damage appears. Entire blocks of homes have exploded. Roofs must be climbed over, sparking power lines avoided. Frightened and muddied dogs run wild. Homeowners stagger around their yards stupefied, putting together enough words to refuse assistance. Cantrell averts her eyes straight ahead in fear of what she may see in the wreckage. The devastation seems to go on forever.

“My God, Matt. This is bad. This is so, so bad.”

There is not much left of the Guidrys' toppled house, and a large tree leans on what remains. The couple is alive, but clearly dazed: Tom steps on nails and broken glass in his flip-flops; it takes him a good minute to identify Cantrell. They all embrace, sobbing in the pouring rain. Meanwhile, tendrils of lightning spread out sideways overhead. The storm is still terrible.

They check on a few neighbors before Cantrell insists on heading home. “Matt, go the very same way, just back to the car.” It feels awful, but Cantrell leaves her son to guide them as she takes off toward Main Street in search of other survivors.

The greenbriar nursing home a few days after its destruction
The Joplin Globe/T. Rob Brown
The Greenbriar nursing home a few days after its destruction.

The destruction is surreal. There is more debris than she can climb over in almost all directions. Emergency sirens blare in the distance, yet no vehicles are around. No responders. Where is everyone? Where are those screams coming from? She ascends a small hill in the road, feels like she knows the area but can't discern any landmarks.

An odd feeling: Am I on the right road? This is where the nursing home should be, or where it once stood. Below is the Greenbriar, 120 beds, where Cantrell took her nurse aide training as a senior in high school—reduced to a mountain of bricks and mattresses and twisted wheelchairs, identifiable only by the facility's van resting in a spot it couldn't have possibly been parked.

A few men are on top of the heap, frantically tossing aside sheet metal and wood. People are trapped under there. Cantrell runs down to assist.

I don't know if we're going to get anyone pulled out of this.


“There was absolutely nothing in that building able to withstand the force of the tornado, so it basically imploded on itself,” explains William Mitchell, executive vice president of operations at the Greenbriar, speaking months after the disaster. On May 22, at 5:41 p.m., an EF-5 tornado with 200 mph winds—enough to strip the bark from trees—carved its way through six miles of the city. The Greenbriar succumbed to a direct hit.

This was not the only nursing home to have been damaged, but it was the only one with fatalities: 11 residents within the rubble, one resident who passed shortly after rescue and one staff member—a heroic CNA named Keith Robinson who was found embracing two residents, all three of them deceased. The Missouri Health Care Association attributes 20 total resident deaths to the tornado, a number that includes those who had died from injury in the aftermath, resulting in the city's greatest loss of life in one confined area. And when taking into account the 88 residents and 22 staff members in the building that night, it's still hard for some to believe that more people hadn't perished.

The second badly damaged nursing facility, which is also managed by Mitchell's employer, LTC Consulting, was the 120-bed Meadows Care Center. Together, 240 nursing home beds had been taken out of existence within seconds; although the Meadows was not immediately demolished, it was certainly uninhabitable.