The tornado sirens had gone off before. Lots of times. Their piercing wail is just a part of life in Missouri as well as other parts of the Midwest known as Tornado Alley.
But this time, Jane Cage, COO of Heartland Technology Solutions, a Joplin, Mo.-based VAR, had a more ominous feeling as she put her cat in a carrier and her dogs on leashes, grabbed her cell phone, wallet and flashlight and headed to the basement.
"We stayed down there 30 minutes. All I could hear is hail and wind blowing. I couldn't really see anything," Cage said. When she emerged she was relieved to find her house was relatively unscathed and she thought it was just another false alarm.
"It didn't look too bad. We knew a tornado had come through. We had no TV so we didn't realize how bad things were. Then as the evening wore on you start to hear that the high school was destroyed, that Home Depot was gone. In some cases you couldn't tell what was rumor or fact, but then we began to realize how bad it was," she said.
Cage was one of the lucky ones. The storm and tornadoes that passed through Joplin killed more than 120 people, destroyed scores of buildings and ripped a hole into the fabric of the lives of this close-knit community of 50,000.
Almost immediately, Cage and others set out to help those in need. She tried to get to the house of a friend, but soon realized it was an impossible task.
"We had to go one block over and four blocks north but we couldn't even get there, there was so much debris and power lines. We couldn't even tell where we were. We had no idea what street we were even on," Cage said. "How could that be when I've lived here for 30 years and I can't figure out where I am in town?
"There's no landmark left to let you know where you are. All I could think was, 'Let's get out of here.' It almost felt like a place you couldn't be."
In the three days since the tornado struck, Cage said she's been touched by the overwhelming number of calls, e-mails and text messages she's received from friends in the IT industry and hasn't had time to personally reply to everyone.
Cage's office suffered little damage, but many of her customers, co-workers and friends were not so lucky.
"Looking at pictures of it is one thing. That's just flat. Standing in middle of it gives you a completely different view. When you stand and as far as you can see there's nothing but tree trunks and debris, it's terrible. It's just overwhelming," Cage said.
Cage said it's hard to not feel some guilt for sustaining relatively little damage when others have suffered so much more.
Next: Striking So Close To Home
"Our dispatcher, her mom's house was completely destroyed. We're all torn between the business of the day and how to figure out how to help people and what to do," Cage said. "It almost feels like it's too early to get past anything but the basics right now. Everybody has a place to stay, transportation, clothes. Those are the things everyone is trying to solve right now."
As of today, most people haven't started thinking about getting back to business, Cage said. "The problem is we're still in such a destructive phase. There's no time to rebuild yet. We're still picking through to try to salvage," Cage said.
Cage has been on mission trips in the past, including one to Greensburg, Kans., a year after a deadly tornado struck, to help relief efforts there. Like many people, she never thought a similar tragedy would strike so close to home.
"We just completed our business continuity plan about a week ago, where to meet if our office was destroyed and all of that. But from a personal perspective, you always go somewhere else to help. I never thought we'd be in a position to have people need to help us. It never occurs to you that YOU will be the place," Cage said. "I felt really bad about the people of Greensburg, Kansas. Now anytime I go anywhere now and tell people I'm from Joplin, they'll say, oh, that's where that bad tornado was."