If I hadn’t seen Joplin, Mo., almost two years ago, I wouldn’t believe the extent of the devastation in Moore, Okla.

By the time I visited Joplin on Labor Day 2011, after the May 22 tornado had struck the southwest Missouri community, much of the damage was still visible. Entire city blocks of houses and buildings lay pulverized to piles of rubble. No newspaper photograph or television news clip could capture the damage. Areas where the debris had been cleared had become the silent ghosts of neighborhoods that no longer existed. Signs spraypainted on remnants of houses ranged from the threatening “You loot, we shoot” to the reassuring “all ok.”

Tim Bartow expressed his thanks to the many volunteers who helped in the aftermath of the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. May 22, 2011. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post) Tim Bartow expressed his thanks to the volunteers who helped in the aftermath of the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

Two months later I accompanied my son’s Boy Scout troop to the city to help with cleanup. While there, we visited what had become a local landmark. “The Volunteer House” had been home to Tim Bartow and his family. Only one exterior wall of the structure still stood. Bartow had gathered up the living room furniture, scattered blocks away, so volunteers would have a place to rest.

Then he spray-painted his own heartfelt message to the nearly 115,000 volunteers who came to Joplin from all over the world to help: “Thank you volunteers / We “heart” u! / You are our heroes!”

And the volunteers responded, writing their own messages of hope and encouragement on every surface imaginable. Bartow was there that day and spoke to us, making the experience especially memorable for the Scouts. He recalled the Sunday afternoon when the tornado hit.

Ironically, he and his wife and just finished working on the 5-1/2 year remodeling of the 1920s Craftsman three-bedroom brick house. Their last act: sweeping the leftover sand off of the brick walkway. After the tornado, the broom they’d left standing in a corner of the house was still there. And so was the walkway. But most of the house was gone.

He told us he heard the sirens late that afternoon, but having grown up in Tornado Alley, figured it was a false alarm. His daughter and son-in-law, who lived next door in a house without a basement, came running in screaming about a tornado and rushed downstairs. He was more worried about lightning causing power surges that would damage the computers, so he stayed to turn off the electronics, calling the rest of the family members “Chicken Littles who thought the sky was falling.”

Then the storm blew out the windows of the house. “You know how they say a tornado sounds like a freight train?” he told us. “This sounded like a dozen freight trains.” He barely made it to the basement.

Tim Bartow gathered up his living room furniture so volunteers could have a place to sit in the remains of his home after the Joplin tornado. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)  Bartow gathered up his living room furniture so volunteers could have a place to sit in the remains of his home after the Joplin tornado. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

Once there, he realized that the vortex of the tornado was passing overhead as it sucked up the air through the metal ductwork, collapsing it and causing everyone’s ears to pop. His wife felt like she was being pulled up. Then they heard a crunching, grinding sound as the debris carried by the tornado acted like a giant sandblaster on what was left of the house.

Once it was quiet, they were still not out of danger. They could smell gas. “I think, great, survive the tornado and now we’re going to get blown up.” A 2-by-4 and a piece of Rebar blocked the door at the top of the stairs, but after struggling, Bartow finally got it open.

The scene that greeted him was “surreal,” he said. It looked like a war movie. But despite the devastation, no one in his neighborhood was killed.

The house has since been moved with plans to incorporate it into a museum, and Bartow has published a book about his family’s experience.

When he spoke to the Scouts that day, his voice broke as he said: “There were so many volunteers who came to help. We didn’t have a choice [to go through the tornado], we were stuck.

“But you guys have a choice….I’m glad you came.”

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.