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Utahns with ties to Joplin react to devastating tornado

By Shara Park and Nkoyo Iyamba | Posted - May 23, 2011 at 9:57 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A South Salt Lake woman was in Joplin, Missouri as part of a storm chasing group when a tornado hit the surrounding area. Other Utahns are awaiting word of their loved ones who were in the tornado's path.

Utah woman describes Missouri tornado

Working with a group based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Natalie Colby told KSL in a phone interview that the tornado came within 600 yards of the group's vehicles. The group was watching the storm pattern, waiting for it to dissipate, she said, but suddenly the storm intensified and the tornado touched down on a direct path toward them.

Right then, I looked up and could see a curtain open and there was the tornado, definitely a wedge tornado. I yelled 'Tornado!' And our driver did the best he could, trying to get us the heck out of there.

–Natalie Colby

"Right then, I looked up and could see a curtain open and there was the tornado, definitely a wedge tornado," Colby described. "I yelled ‘Tornado!' And our driver did the best he could, trying to get us the heck out of there."

The warning sirens followed shortly after.

The group considered stopping at a Home Depot on Range Line Road to take shelter from the tornado, Colby said, but decided to remain driving down the road. The group later learned from a radio broadcast that the Home Depot they had planned to take shelter in had been hit hard and was now rubble.

"Once I got into my hotel room, I got on my knees and prayed to God, saying, ‘Thank you.'" Colby said. "Because I knew he had a hand in getting us out of it."

Colby said her heart broke for the people who were stuck on the road when the tornado hit because many of them had no idea it would come at them so fast. A group of teenagers laughed at her group when they were yelling at them to take shelter, but she doesn't know if they survived.

Joplin transplants desperate for news of loved ones

Missouri native Kelli Riem heard about the tornado at her home in Brigham City and quickly turned her attention to her aunt living in the area.

"We hadn't heard from her all last night," Riem said. "There were no phone lines so I couldn't call her."

With the phone lines out of service and many cell towers overloaded with callers, Riem could only get periodic updates from her family on Facebook.

I was baptized there 31 years ago. It's totally demolished -- all the memories we had there.

–Kelli Riem

Riem was born in Joplin and was used to the tornadoes. She described one tornado that ripped through the city while she was living there, saying: "My roof was torn off and I was hiding in the bathroom with my daughter when she was little. Our trampoline was twisted like a twisty tie."

But when she heard the news of Sunday's devastating tornado, she feared the worst and tried to contact her family. Her aunt Carol lives in the Iron Gates Community in Joplin, which is right by the hospital that was hit hard.

Eventually, Riem was able to contact her cousin through Facebook who told her that her aunt's house was slightly damaged, but everything around it was completely destroyed.

"It was troubling and very hard not knowing if she was alive or not," said Riem.

Now, Riem looks at pictures of the remnants of her childhood in the debris that is still standing, including the only LDS chapel in the area.

Looking for loved ones
Are you searching for a loved one who was in or near Joplin, Mo., when the deadly tornado hit? CLICK HERE for more information on how to contact them through the American Red Cross' "Safe and Well" program.

The city of Joplin has also set up a phone number for people to check the status of friends and family in the area. Just call 417-659-5464.

"I was baptized there 31 years ago," Riem said. "It's totally demolished -- all the memories we had there."

The image of tithing envelopes still intact on a wall of the destroyed LDS chapel reminded Riem that help would soon be on it's way. She said the wall remained intact to "tell people to pay tithing to help these people out."

Riem is still waiting to talk to her good friend Jimmy whose house was destroyed while he was working at Golden Corral restaurant helping people get to safety.

"He got everybody into the kitchen area to get people away from the windows," she explained. "He got a call that his house was totally demolished."

Riem hopes to travel to Joplin to help with clean-up efforts.

Another Utah family is frantically trying to find a loved one missing since the tornado hit.

Anne Jacobson, 63, is wheelchair-bound and lives at a nursing home not far from St. John's Medical Center, which was severely damaged in the storm. Jacobson's sister and daughter live in American Fork.

"We've tried really hard to keep busy all day and focus on happy thoughts and thinking she's OK," said Helen Francom, Jacobson's sister.


Story written by Shara Park and Nkoyo Iyamba with contributions from Jed Boal.

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