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Joplin student: After tornado, 'life changed forever'

By Lydia McAllister, Special to CNN
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Joplin: Learning in disaster zones
  • A tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, in May destroyed parts of town and killed more than 150
  • The home of Lydia McAllister, a senior at Joplin High School, was destroyed
  • Joplin students return to school this week
  • Lydia: "I think about the tornado every day, but it gets easier"

Editor's Note: Lydia McAllister is a senior at Joplin High School in Joplin, Missouri. She writes for the school newspaper, The Spyglass, plays soccer and is an officer with the National Honor Society. Next year, she hopes to study journalism at the University of Missouri.

Education Overtime is an seven-week series that focuses on the conversations surrounding education issues that affect students, teachers, parents and the community.

Joplin, Missouri -- Wednesday will be the first day of my last year of high school. Like any other senior, I'm excited to be close to the end. But unlike students in other places, I'm starting school year in a town that survived a tornado.

May 22, 2011, is the day my life changed forever. Thinking back, no one could have known what would happen at 5:41 p.m. It was just another Sunday, just another thunderstorm. I was in the kitchen finishing an art project with the TV on in the background. A lady came on to say it was a "super cell."

Back to school in tornado-ravaged Joplin

On the front porch, my dad and little brother were watching the storm develop. The sky looked strange. Big black clouds gave way to smaller clouds that hung lower than they should. Everything was so still. The sky started to have an eerie, greenish tint, and the wind blowing south stopped and blew north. In that moment, I knew it wouldn't be just another thunderstorm.

Lydia McAllister's home and high school were destroyed by a tornado that passed through Joplin, Missouri, in May.
Lydia McAllister's home and high school were destroyed by a tornado that passed through Joplin, Missouri, in May.

iReport Open Story: Joplin tornado

We went down to the basement. My dad had to carry our dog, Belle, who was too old to take the stairs. Hearing the tornado pass through my house is a memory I keep buried.

When most of it was over, we couldn't see much. My dad walked to the bottom of the stairs and looked up into what should have been our home, but it was gone. It was just sky. He cleared a path through the debris so he could stand in what should have been our living room. I'll never forget that image of him, the sky above him illuminated with lighting more raw and powerful than I'd ever seen. The tears that streamed down his face let me know it was so much worse than I had thought.

The days that followed were some of the hardest. We made trips back and forth to the house where we stayed. We salvaged what we could and picked apart the rubble that used to be our home. Old toys and school work I hadn't seen in years resurfaced and other things, I'll never see again. The stuff I really wanted, you could never find.

New video of Joplin tornado 'a reminder'
Inside Joplin school as tornado hits

The days were a blur -- we took photo albums and furniture from the basement to storage units and helped neighbors and friends anyway and everywhere we could. I was depressed, angry, bitter, frustrated. Why us? Why Joplin? More than anything, I hated that it only took the tornado minutes to tear apart my town, but it would be months before life could be anything close to normal.

Impact Your World: How to help tornado victims

All those times I'd heard, "Life's not fair," finally made more sense than it ever had before.

Before we found a rental house, we stayed with family friends and then my grandparents. Their homes on the other side of town were fine. The rental is nothing like my old house, but my mom has managed to make it feel home-y. I say "home-y" because my home -- the house where I grew up and have memories in every room -- is just an empty lot right now, waiting to be rebuilt. It doesn't look like much now, but I love every inch what used to be there.

My dad and I talked about the good and bad things that came from the tornado.

The bad were a lot easier to list. In fact, I sat there trying to think of good things for a long time before my dad said, "For every bad thing the tornado has done, think of a good thing, too. That way you keep a balance. You always have to have a balance."

It's something I'm working on.

The McAllister family -- Sheri, Locke, Megan, Lydia and Edward -- where their Joplin home used to stand.
The McAllister family -- Sheri, Locke, Megan, Lydia and Edward -- where their Joplin home used to stand.

We'll have a new house. The whole town will be newer and nicer than before.

All our friends and family are OK.

It was always the kind of community where people helped each other, but now everyone knows it.

I'm more excited than usual to start school again. The normality that comes with the school year will be a welcome change from the wild card summer we've been dealt.


Our new school is in a mall, and it's a cool space to have your senior year. It's just juniors and seniors, so I won't be with my brother for his freshman year. But I'll have the same schedule I wanted before the tornado, and all the sports and activities are starting like usual.

Joplin marching band tries to bring back the music

The Friday before the tornado hit, my chemistry teacher, Mr. Parker, had written on the board: If the world ends Sunday, there will be no school Monday. It was just a joke about end-of-the-world predictions in the news, but our world would kind of end. It stopped spinning in those second the tornado was over us, and then started spinning faster than it had before.

I think about the tornado every day, but it gets easier. The anger and resentment have worn off. The tornado ruined a lot of things, but we're still here. Our town is being rebuilt, and our schools are starting on time.

Good things are still keeping the balance.