Crystal and her family weren’t expecting the devastating, mile-wide tornado that leveled much of southern Joplin, Missouri, six years ago. Neither were the weathermen for that matter. But Crystal says no other experience affected her more spiritually.
The life-threatening storm gave her new eyes to view everything about this life.
The Tornado That Wasn’t Supposed to Happen
Crystal Hornback, her husband, Derrick, and their three children weren’t bracing themselves for a tornado. It was a busy Sunday for the youth pastor’s family. They were buzzing around, getting ready for a student-led service followed by a fundraiser dinner. They were aware there were thunderstorms in the area, but it had been a sunny, windy day. Crystal and their youth group were busy planning, and they had no idea there was an unplanned storm swirling on the horizon.
“About an hour before service was to start, we were scrambling to prepare for the fundraiser, and the tornado sirens went off,” Crystal recalled.
The adults went outside to check the sky for anything ominous while Crystal gathered everyone to safety in the hallway. The sirens stopped, signaling the all clear, so Crystal and her crew dove right back into prepping for the evening ahead. But nothing could have prepared them for what came next.
Ten minutes later, they heard sirens again. The students groaned as they were ushered back to the safe area again to wait for the all clear.
But the all clear never came.
“The electricity went out. Then we heard the monstrous roar, and at that point, we knew,” Crystal said.
What Crystal and her youth group knew was that something big and bad was outside.
It was a multi-vortex, EF-5 tornado—the strongest on the scale, producing intense winds at rates of over 200 miles per hour. And that tornado was ripping their building to shreds—along with over half their city—while they piled on top of one another, clawing for safety in that hallway.
Crystal’s instinct was to cry out to the God of the storm. She said prayers were going up like crazy. She prayed for a bubble to be placed around them and for glue to keep them to the floor. Crystal believes He provided both. Most of all, Crystal felt an overwhelming peace while the storm raged outside.
“I knew that regardless of what happened, He was with us, and that He would make beauty out of it,” she said.
Dazed and Confused
“When we realized it was over, I immediately made sure my kids (who were lying underneath me) were breathing,” Crystal remembered.
As everyone got up and checked each other for injuries, they realized they were covered in what was left of the ceiling tiles that had once hung above them. Crystal said there was debris all around them from other areas of the church. Looking up, she saw the roof directly overhead was still there.
“The sanctuary roof was gone. Light shone in and huge wooden beams were everywhere.”
Crystal was floored when she discovered the extreme damage on the other side of the wall that had been their shield. Those who took shelter within the church only sustained minor injuries. Crystal was truly grateful for that, and she knew exactly whom to thank.
“No one really knew the magnitude of what we’d just survived until they went outside to see that every direction the eye could see was flattened,” she said.
Flattened was a good word to describe it. Trees were de-barked. Cars had been picked up and dropped miles from where they had been parked. Wreckage was everywhere. Instead of a city, Joplin looked more like a dumping ground.
Crystal remembered the chaos that immediately followed the tornado. People walked into the church gym—which had minimal damage—for shelter.
“The panorama outside was like that of a movie,” she said. “People walked the streets with their animals and children in disbelief, like an Armageddon scene. There really are no words to describe the initial feelings after the storm.”
Bringing It Home
Crystal and Derrick lost their home, vehicle and the majority of their personal belongings.
“I sat in our front yard with my kids on a bench that had once been in the back yard. I had found a bag of unopened Doritos inside our damaged home, and my kids sat drenched, eating chips,” Crystal recalled.
Crystal’s parents tried to come to the rescue from Oklahoma, but because of the severity of the damage, the roads had been shut down. Crystal was at a loss for what to do. A couple who lived several miles from town drove in to check on things. They offered to let Crystal and her family stay with them. The Hornbacks didn’t have transportation anymore, so another couple gave them a ride.
Crystal’s friends gave them their master suite, where they spent the next few weeks. Though Crystal’s family had somewhere safe and warm to stay, she remembers it as an emotionally heightened, sleepless first night.
“My family huddled together in relief, fear, disbelief and more emotions than I even knew existed,” she said. “There wasn’t much sleep that night—or the many nights to follow. But we were fortunate enough to still have one another.”
Rebuilding From the Inside Out
God proved Himself an amazing provider to Crystal’s family after the storm. Though they had next to nothing, there was such a deep joy in serving others who literally had nothing. Crystal knows that joy came straight from the hand of God. Crystal shares a snapshot of that awesome provision on her personal blog:
“It was the most beautiful display of servanthood that I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing and participating in.
Sometimes, I miss those days. Did I just say that?
I don’t miss the wake of that storm…the heartache and pain, the loss and utter chaos. I don’t miss watching the struggles, hearing constant emergency sirens, seeing the count of lost lives rise. I don’t miss the nervous breakdowns every Sunday from my five-year-old son as we headed to church (in rented spaces). I don’t miss the tears from my kids as they struggled to sleep for fear of not waking up. There is so much that I don’t miss about those days. So. Very. Much.
But what I do miss is how unoccupied we were with stuff. We were thrust into a different world… a different way of living.”
A Good Different
God poured out blessing upon blessing and eventually restored all the Hornback family had lost. And Crystal says her family’s lives have been made over by the Joplin tornado. In a good way. Crystal saw her church and her community in a new light.
“Everyone had a calling. A calling to serve. To pray. To unite. And it was beautiful,” Crystal said.
Through one of the most horrendous trials Crystal and her family had ever known—it resulted in children who suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and the loss of almost all their stuff—they found the love and strength of God.
“I want my children and those around me to know that they mean so much more than a couch, a building, things,“ Crystal explained. “I want my Jesus to know that He is everything I need… and then some.
When I leave this Earth and go home, I want to leave a legacy, not things.
You can have all of my stuff. Just give me Jesus.”