Debbie Fort

People throughout Joplin have an image from that night that lingers in their minds.

For Debbie Fort, it was the small red glow of a cigarette in a neighborhood not far from Irving Elementary, where Fort was principal. She was walking the streets to see whether any of her families needed help.

As she got closer to the glow, she saw a man sitting on his porch, cigarette in hand.

She asked whether he was OK. Like so many residents she passed that night, the man was silent. Fort said everyone she passed that night seemed like “human zombies,” unable to speak.

“I just remember him sitting there,” said Fort, who lives outside Joplin but went in that night to check on her son, then her school, which was destroyed, and her schoolchildren who lived nearby. “It’s all he had. He didn’t have a home left, but he did have a porch.”

The tornado, coupled with the death of her father, gave Fort a sense of her own mortality. In the past five years, she has had weight loss surgery and is down more than 100 pounds.

She has gone through the things she still wants to accomplish and started to check some off. Retirement. Volunteering. Winning a seat on the Joplin school board.

In the days after the tornado, she and her staff worked to account for all of Irving’s students, wiping their names from a board one by one as they were found.

“When we erased the last name … that was a great day,” she said.

The next days were about getting ready for school in another building and making sure the students and their parents felt safe. For the next school year, external storm shelters were brought in.

Kids talked about the tornado and how it had changed things. So did their parents.

“You know that everybody has a story,” Fort said. “But after the tornado, everybody needed to tell their story.”

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