Most people were given a 25-minute warning.
An F-2 tornado had touched down on the afternoon of May 22 and headed toward Joplin's Mercy Hospital, a sturdy structure filled with 186 patients and an estimated 160 employees.
As the tornado approached, it morphed into a massive F-5 and made a direct hit on the hospital. The impact was so powerful, it knocked the nine-story structure four inches off its foundation and killed four patients and one staff member.
The mammoth tornado then moved on, devastating everything in its path.
Yet somehow, John and Debbie Lacey’s house survived the brunt of the damage. Surrounded as far as the eye could see by the decimated homes of their neighbors, the walls of the home still remained and the roof never separated from the house.
Unlike most of the area's dwellings, their house could be salvaged.
But the Lacey family did not have homeowners insurance to make the necessary repairs. After an accident while working for the Missouri Department of Transportation, John had fought to get disability and planned on using that money to purchase insurance.
The tornado hit before he had the chance. Thus, the Laceys were forced to live in a tent in their backyard for the foreseeable future.
That is where the charitable organization Operation Blessing found the Laceys when they decided to step in and help. The Laceys were told they were getting a new roof and were sent away for the day while the repairs were made.
But they got far more than just a roof. Instead, Operation Blessing and over 300 volunteers from The Home Depot arrived to help, including the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team and its driver, Joey Logano.
With Home Depot volunteers working on rebuilding the inside of the house, the Gibbs team went to work on constructing a new shed, building flower beds and vegetable gardens and creating a treehouse for the Lacey's twin grandsons – all while the unsuspecting Laceys were off the property.
After a day of hard work by the volunteers, the family returned home and was surprised by an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-style reveal with a completely restored home.
"I thought I was going to have to live in a tent for the rest of my life," said Debbie Lacey, stunned by the day's events.
In addition to the home, there was another surprise, too.
Through their flowing tears, John Lacey saw Logano standing amid the throng of supporters. He appeared to be in as much shock over the 21-year-old’s presence as he was over his new home.
“Unreal," Lacey said of Logano's visit. "This just made my day. I don’t know what to say. I’m just so thankful. I’m at a loss for words right now.”
The reaction caught Logano off guard.
“I’m a normal Joe; I don’t want to be treated any different than the next guy,” Logano said. “They recognized me and were like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was like, ‘Dude, check out your house! Forget about me.’ I’m just Joe Shmoe. I’m just Joey. To me, that’s just who I am."
Logano, though, was equally moved by the experience. Watching the family's reaction touched him as a "pretty deep moment."
“To see their faces when they came out of that car and we were all walking up there," Logano said, "(and) the whole family down to their grandkids, everyone’s crying – if that didn’t bring a tear to your eye, something is wrong with you."
While the Lacey family was surprised by their home repaired beyond their imagination, families nearby away toiled to salvage what was left of their homes, their lives and their futures.
It was easy to look around and think, ‘Why fix just this house?’ and ‘How will the neighbors explain this to their kids?’
But according to an official with Operation Blessing’s Disaster Response team, the entire neighborhood came out to support the Lacey family. The next-door neighbor, an 80-year-old woman who had moved to her daughter’s house in Kansas, even offered to sell the family her property for $1.
Businesses were tornado victims, too
It was not only homes that were caught in the path of the deadly tornado, however. After shaking the hospital off its foundation, tearing its way to through the high school and destroying nearly everything in its path, the tornado then headed directly for the business district and right for Home Depot Store #3023.
The store had nearly 40 associates and customers inside as the storm came through. The staff gathered as many as they could into the break room and under a Rubbermaid table. People continued to run into the store for shelter, even as the windows and doors were being blown out.
When the storm passed, all but one corner of the building had collapsed.
As the storm hit, store manager Steve Cope was having dinner about a mile away. It took him nearly 30 minutes to navigate through the debris and reach the building to check on his employees and customers.
He never could have imagined what he saw.
“I was flipping out, to be honest,” he said.
Cope quickly took a picture of the damaged store from a distance, sent it to upper management at The Home Depot and then went to help those inside.
Amazingly, the small table held the weight of the massive carpet rolls that ended up on top of it, as well as the roof. The employees and customers underneath the table were able to climb out of the rubble, but seven people were killed – including one of Cope's employees.
“I saw the look on my people’s faces,” Cope said. “(They were) sheets of white because they didn’t know what was happening.”
Nothing inside the store was salvageable; there was nearly $6 million in lost products. But in six days, the associates were able to erect a massive tent structure that will act as the temporary store until another can be built.
As soon as the JGR team and Logano pulled up and began surveying the damage to the store, the associates began to gather, emerging from their temporary workplace. Smiling and laughing, they asked Logano for pictures and autographs, sharing their stories of that hellish day.
“It’s awesome,” one associate said. “It means a lot for him to take the time out of his busy schedule to come down here.”
Cope could see the excitement in the body language and reactions of his employees who had endured so much in the past few weeks.
“I haven’t seen this many smiles on my associates' faces in three weeks,” he said.
A personal note about Joplin
Making this trip with the Joe Gibbs Racing team, we all shared an experience none of us truly were prepared for.
Sure, we had seen the pictures and news reports on the tornado, but seeing it on television can do no justice to what it is like to drive through neighborhood after neighborhood of destruction in Joplin.
Entire houses flattened. Cars wrecked and rolled all over the place. Trees stripped of their leaves, branches and bark.
It was truly awe-inspiring, but it seemed to be the little things we noticed the most.
The enormous power of this tornado could knock a nine-story hospital off its foundation, but the apartment complex a block or two away was spared. Cars were thrown like toys, but small stones and other rocks appeared to have never even moved. The trees were stripped naked, but the grass stayed in place.
Driving through the rubble of the city and staring at the destroyed hospital, it was hard to imagine anyone was able to survive such a deadly force. However, only blocks away from the Laceys' house, it appeared as if nothing had happened.
Business were still open, homes were still intact. Restaurants offered free food for tornado victims and mobile insurance units were set up in nearly shopping center.
Aside from a few missing shingles here and there, signs saying ‘You are in our prayers’ and flags at half mast, there was little sign of destruction. It was quite amazing.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here today,” Logano said. “You see it on TV, you hear a lot about it, but you can’t really understand. You get there, you go around that turn and you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’
“It was unbelievable to see and kind of scary to think about. Think about if you were in one of those houses, what it was like. You see the hospital over there, the chaos you would think it would be inside there.”
Logano talked with Joplin native Jamie McMurray in Kansas Speedway about the latter driver's visit to his hometown following the storm. McMurray did his best to describe what he saw, but Logano realized after Tuesday’s trip it was impossible to do.
“I’m doing my best I can to try and explain to you right now what it’s like, I can’t explain it,” Logano said. “Pictures can’t explain it. Video can’t explain it. I don’t know how you’re going to do it (in a story). I don’t think you can. I think you have to go there to see how big of a deal this was and how much stuff it just destroyed.
“You’ve got to remember, with every bad thing that happens, there’s a positive in there somewhere,” he continued. “You’ve got to look for it, sometimes you have to look really, really hard for it, sometimes it takes years. Whether this creates jobs in Joplin, that could be a positive.
"Eventually, everyone is going to come out a stronger person. People always tell me when I have a bad race or I’m struggling that it’s a character builder, so Joplin is going to be full of characters.”
Perhaps one of the most striking things was the American flags waving amid the rubble. NASCAR is among the most patriotic sports in the nation, and the American flag is prominent every weekend in pre-race ceremonies, in the grandstands and throughout the campgrounds. Yet seeing those flags waving, tattered and torn, just like the lives of those in Joplin was something different.
It meant something more. These were ordinary Americans, living in a hell they did not ask for and they could have never imagined. Through it all, despite the utter destruction and devastation, Americans from all walks of life and all parts of the country – even a NASCAR race team and its young star driver – were coming together to help their fellow citizens.
Their homes and lives may have been destroyed, but by helping one another, there was hope for the future.
Videos from Joplin, taken during Tuesday's Joe Gibbs Racing visit:
Photos from Tuesday's Joe Gibbs Racing visit to Joplin (by Jay Pennell / SB Nation):