The sky was calm and clear last Sunday afternoon. So much so that Mariah Sanders thought nothing of it while playing softball.

And when she was told afterward that she would have to stay put for a bit -- that there was a tornado warning for her hometown of Joplin, Mo., -- she thought nothing of that, either.

"We have them all the time," the lifelong resident says.

Soon after, when word that a powerful tornado had touched down and ripped through Joplin, when she was unable to get a hold of her parents and younger sister because phone service was down, when she wasn't allowed to go back into town because the damage was so great, the star high school pole vaulter knew something was wrong.

The next day, when she finally made the half-hour trip back home, the magnitude of the moment took hold.

"The first thing I saw was my high school, because we live right near the school," she says. "It was destroyed. I was in shock. I couldn't talk. Then I saw my house."

Unlike most of the rest of the houses on her block, her home was still standing. Parts of the roof had collapsed inward. The windows were blown out.

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"I just started crying," the 17-year-old junior says. "It was bad."

Her family was fine, after huddling in Mariah's sister's closet.

Their home was not.

And the sectional track meet -- the one where she qualified for states just a day before the tornado hit -- seemed like it happened another lifetime ago.


An EF-5 Tornado, the strongest of all tornadoes -- the ones that seemingly only exist in the movies -- don't happen often. There had been fewer than 100 since the scale was established in 1950, and only a handful this century before a number touched down on April 27 throughout the South, including Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The latest touched down in the heart of Joplin. The impact was stunning.

The town of roughly 50,000 was devastated -- ripped in half, some said -- as a six-mile long by one-mile wide path of destruction was laid by winds of more than 200 mph.

Early estimates say a third of the town's structures were destroyed. Another report estimated the damage at roughly $3 billion.

As of Friday morning, the death count stood at 132, making it one of the 10 deadliest tornados in history. But with more than 100 people still unaccounted for, officials are not sure how much that toll will rise.

It will take days before the final numbers from this natural disaster can be calculated. In reality, it will take years, if not generations, before the true toll can be measured.

"I don"t have words to describe it; it’s horrible," Courtney Wilson says. "It's far worse than any of the pictures show. There are people walking around with nothing. Their homes have been destroyed. They have no place to go."

Wilson, who normally works in the prosecutor’s office, has spent the week answering phones at the police station. Volunteerism is everywhere.

"It's amazing how many have just showed up to help," she says. "People from as far away as New York and New Jersey. Not just emergency officials, just people who just wanted to help."

Mariah Sanders just wanted to be with her family.


Sanders, who began pole vaulting in the eighth grade, was beginning to make a name for herself in the event. She had been aiming for the state meet all season.

"I wanted to place in the top eight," she says, noting what was needed to be recognized.

And though she needed a jump-off in the sectional meet to advance, she was confident she could succeed. Then the tornado struck.

"On Sunday and Monday I said there's no way I'm going to state," she says.

Her parents, knowing how important it was to her, told her to take the night to think about it. By Tuesday, her mood began to change. A decision was made: She was going.

Amazingly, she was able to.

Tornadoes tend to destroy everything in their path, but their path is always random. So while her school was destroyed, the stadium where Sanders keeps her poles was not.

On Wednesday night she got in a practice and became more determined than ever to go.

"I had to do it for my family and my coaches," she says. "I had to go because I had to represent Joplin and our high school. It became more important for me to go than it had the week before."

It became more important for a lot of people.


In the midst of such destruction, a girls pole vaulting competition may not seem like much. But psychologists and counselors will say returning to the everyday events of your life is one of the steps of grief recovery.

Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of the center for Sport in Society, says Sanders' trip to the state meet is part of the healing process for more than just her.

"You need some sort of common bond to give you collective strength in times of despair and toughness," he says. "(Sports) is a common landscape, a common language. No matter what your race or your religion or your ethnicity or your socio-economic background, sports speaks to us all.

"Tragedy doesn't discriminate, either. If there is a horrific event, rich people are hurt and poor people are hurt and so is everyone in between. A tornado can wipe out an entire town. This girl epitomizes this hope against ruin -- it can flow throughout the community and speak to the larger world beyond the athletic field."

Once she arrived in Jefferson City on Friday, Sanders found everyone just wanted to speak with her.

Her track uniform is the school's cardinal red. The name J-O-P-L-I-N is spelled out in white with a blue trim. It may as well have been in neon.

"It was funny, everywhere me and my coaches walked I could see people pointing and talking," she says. "They saw the Joplin name."

And though the meet did not do anything to formally recognize the town, the crowd did.

"The applause, whenever they said the name, was awesome," she says. "It was louder than for other schools."

Sanders was sought out by many well-wishers: "Half the people I talked to," she says, "I had no idea who they were."


School is out in Joplin. Graduation -- thankfully -- ended just a bit before the storm. And while state playoffs continue on, the rest of the school's spring sports teams had been eliminated from postseason competition. Sanders was the only member of the girls (or boys) track teams to advance to the state meet, meaning she was the last active student from a high school that is no longer active.

Sanders says she felt that pressure: "A lot of people told me to represent Joplin well," she says. "I wanted to do so. We have a lot of pride."

Joplin, more than 150 miles away, was always near as she competed.

"It was on my mind more at the meet than it was when I was with my family back home," she says. "I knew I would never be able to get away from it. It was a big deal."

She finished in a three-way tie for that 8th spot, clearing 10 feet. However, due to scratches, she is officially listed in 10th. She doesn't mind.

And she doesn't mind not knowing where she'll spend her senior year. "They haven't really talked about that," she says.

After what her town has gone through, it really doesn't matter. She'll always be a proud student of Joplin High.

Tom Bergeron is the senior editor for Send ideas, questions or comments to and follow at