Riding to rebuild: Cyclists enduring 800-mile trek
NATCHEZ — Two years after a catastrophic EF5 tornado ripped apart her Joplin home, Amy Thomas is healing.
Thomas arrived home on May 22, 2011, with her 9-year-old son, now 11, and turned on the television to check the weather, only for the power to go out.
“I opened the front door and saw the tornado,” she said. “We went to the laundry room, which was the innermost room, and about the time we dove in there, it hit the house. It was just ripping our house apart.”
Silence fell over the house, and Thomas thought the tornado was over.
“We were in the eye for about a minute and a half, then it hit us again,” she said. “I thought we were in two tornadoes.”
When the tornado passed, Thomas and her son opened the door to the garage.
“All you could see was the sky,” she said. “Everything was leveled 360 degrees around us.”
Thomas then went into “survival mode.”
“I just started digging people out,” she said.
Thomas followed the screams of neighbors trapped underneath debris to pull them out.
Over near St. Paul United Methodist Church, the Rev. Aaron Brown was going to door-to-door checking on families after the storm hit.
“It was unimaginable,” he said. “I just started going house-to-house checking on anybody. I made my way to the church eventually … I just spent the night running with people and digging through houses and trying to find folks.”
Even with half of the campus destroyed, Brown’s church became a triage center.
“They were doing surgeries in the church, setting bones and stitching people up,” he said.
When rain started pouring shortly after the tornado, displaced Joplin residents took shelter in the church.
“It just became a place for folks in the neighborhood to come in and a have a roof over their heads,” Brown said. “Folks were just wandering in without shoes and without basic stuff, and we just started taking care of them.”
The Joplin tornado claimed 160 lives, and two years later Thomas and Brown are part of a team of cyclists biking from Joplin to New Orleans to raise money to give survivors of the Joplin tornado and hurricanes Sandy and Katrina back their homes.
The JOMONOLA Bike Tour made a stop in Natchez Thursday on day eight of the team’s 10-day, 800-mile ride. The riders were fed by members of Jefferson Street United Methodist Church, who also let the riders set up for the night in the church.
The goal of the ride is to raise $150,000 to build homes for three families displaced by the Joplin tornado and Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.
The idea for JOMONOLA sparked during talks between Rebuild Joplin Executive Director Jerrod Hogan and St. Bernard Parish, La., Project volunteer and Rhode Islander Jim Feeney.
The St. Bernard Project has rebuilt houses for 470 Hurricane Katrina survivors. Rebuild Joplin has built 73 houses for families impacted by the May 2011 tornado. Work is also in progress to help families affected by Hurricane Sandy.
The journey back home for disaster survivors and the ride from Joplin to New Orleans have parallels, Hogan said.
“The long-term recovery of a disaster is similar to riding a bike every day,” he said. “You know you’re going to have a place to sleep, but it’s not home. You know that some days are going to be easier than others, and you know that some days are going to be challenging. And you don’t really know how you’re going to get from one place to another, but you’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Most of the riders were virtually strangers when they left Joplin, Feeney said.
“The riders have bonded almost as a big family, and they’ve become really close,” he said. “Initially, I think they came on the ride for a common purpose, but now they’ve bonded together as a family making a difference.”
Making a difference is what prompted Thomas to join the JOMONOLA ride.
Thomas said she spent the months after the tornado helping rebuild life for herself and her son.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “I’m a single parent, and I was just trying to figure things out for us.”
So when she read about JOMONOLA in the newspaper, Thomas, an avid cyclist, didn’t even finish reading the article before deciding she would take the ride from Joplin to New Orleans.
“I didn’t really feel like I got to help out the community right after the tornado,” she said. “Within 30 minutes or an hour, people were there helping me … and here I am two years later, and I just feel honored and privileged to give back to the community that helped me out.
“I’m helping other people, but, I don’t know, maybe it can help heal me, too.”
JOMONOLA has so far raised $130,000 of its $150,000 goal. With two days left on their journey, Hogan and Feeney say they are hopeful donors will help JOMONOLA reach its goal.
To make a donation to the group, visit jomonola.org or call 417-623-0065. Checks can also be mailed to Rebuild Joplin at 705 Illinois Ave., No. 1, Joplin, MO., 64801.