Ridgefield native weathers storm

She now lives in Joplin, Mo., where tornado killed at least 126

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Bethany Lewis’ sister-in-law, Alissa Gossard, tells her story of surviving the tornado at:

When Bethany Lewis drove past the wrecked Taco Bell, she thought, “This has got to be Main Street.”

There aren’t many landmarks — or even street signs — left in that section of Joplin after Sunday’s tornado erased part of the southwest Missouri town.

So the ruined restaurant helped Lewis find her way home a few days ago.

Lewis, a native of Ridgefield, now works in Joplin and her family lives in a nearby community.

She is back in Clark County for a few days to take part in a wedding, and Lewis shared some of her experiences during and after the storm that killed at least 126 people.

When Lewis reported for her evening shift at an Outback Steakhouse in Joplin, “Everyone was watching the news,” which included tornado warnings, she said.

“The servers didn’t think the customers should be there,” she said.

However, tornado warnings have become a spring routine, she added, and people tendto shrug them off.

“Every year in May, there are lots of tornado warnings, and it usually goes around Joplin,” she said. “It never comes into the urban area.”

Until Sunday.

“When the power went out, people got pretty frantic,” she said. The manager escorted customers and staff back to a walk-in refrigerator and a storage area, but not everybody headed for shelter in the building’s interior.

“Some customers stayed to watch the storm,” Lewis said.

A co-worker left to help his mother, and was in tears when he returned. His mother and his daughter weren’t there; his house was gone. The co-worker came back to the restaurant, Lewis said, because he had nowhere else to go. And he drove back on four flat tires because the streets were littered with broken glass and scraps of metal. He later received a call telling him that they were at a local hospital and were OK.

The restaurant wasn’t damaged, and Lewis’ home escaped the tornado. Chris and Bethany Lewis and their two sons live in the town of Oronogo, about 25 minutes away from her job.

Chris was part of a crew that went out Sunday evening with tools, chain saws and supplies of bottled water to help whoever they could, wherever they could. They also checked damaged houses for tornado survivors — or victims.

In checking one house, Chris found a person who’d been killed, and another who was still alive after being speared by a 2-by-4.

The immediate Lewis family still was affected by the storm. People have been taking in displaced family members. A few people in the family have diabetes, and they have been pooling their supplies.

Bethany’s sister-in-law, Alissa Gossard, and her three young sons live near the path of the tornado and took shelter in a small closet in the center of the house.

“She saw the walls cracking and the drywall flying around,” Lewis said. “Her dad came to get her. He had to walk the last four blocks because the streets were blocked.”

The front door also was blocked by debris, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem.

“They walked out through a hole in the wall,” Lewis said.