Mercy Joplin hospital workers remember devastating tornado ten years later

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 11:20 AM CDT
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JOPLIN, Mo. -- Medical staff inside of Joplin’s then-St. John’s Regional Medical Center remember the warnings before the May 22, 2011 tornado that devastated the community. They just didn’t know how big it was going to be.

Kevin Kepley, the Intensive Care Unit manager at the new Mercy Joplin Hospital, says they heard the sirens and knew bad weather was possible. It was something they prepped for and were following protocol.

“[We were] pulling our patients out and getting them prepared for what we would do for condition gray or tornadoes,” he says.

They feared power might go out so their focus was getting patients ready just in case and getting paperwork done for the night. That’s when Kepley looked outside.

“I said something to the secretary [like] ‘It’s pretty dark out there now what do you think of that?’ and about that time, we hear a noise,” he says. “It sounded like probably a jet engine.”

He says they yelled for everyone to take cover because, knowing it would be a direct hit. Stuffed in a closet with other staff on the seventh-floor of the hospital, he could only think about his family.

“Everybody was asleep when I came to work,” Kepley says. “Was last night, the last time that my kids saw me say goodnight to them?”

When things got quiet they left the closet. It was flooded to their ankles and cords hung from the ceilings, but they were safe.

“You’re looking at your family, you’re thanking God that you are alive, and you’re able to be home and see them,” he says.

Donna Stokes, a nurse for Mercy Joplin for 44 years, was home when the tornado hit.

The EF-5 storm flattened her house while her son and her took shelter in the basement.

“Our house, it was gone,” she says. “So the next focus, we had was helping other people.”

So she went to the hospital and couldn’t believe it had also taken a major hit.

“It was very sad very emotional because that was my second home,” Stokes says. “I’ve worked there for so many years, and yeah, it was just heartbreaking.”

But she got to work.

“Health conditions didn’t stop,” she says. “So, there were people with other issues occurring, other than injuries from the tornado.”

She lost her home and her co-workers were injured, but the focus was not herself, just recovery.

“Everybody pitched in to get that job done and that was to take care of the people of our community,” she says.