Author’s note: Like my subject in the combination story and interview that follows, I was in Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, May 22, 2011, where I ultimately found myself in the path of the powerful EF5 tornado that destroyed roughly a third of the city that day. It killed 161 people in the process.
I live in Leavenworth, Kan., but I work in Oskaloosa, Kan., occupying the editor’s chair at The Oskaloosa Independent, the second-oldest newspaper in the state. On June 9, 2011, the two papers owned by Davis Publications Inc., The Independent and The Vindicator (Valley Falls, Kan.), each carried a story about my subject headlined “Valley Falls native cheats death in Joplin tornado.” It was my eventual discovery of this story while I was looking through the back issues of The Independent one day (I wasn’t working for the paper in 2011) that prompted me to recently start trying to locate the subject of that story, then having found her, make the necessary arrangements to interview her.
Morgan Ratliff, a 2008 graduate of Valley Falls High School, came ever so close to dying on May 22, 2011 when a massive tornado rolled into Joplin late in the afternoon and proceeded to chew up and spit out everything in front of it, including the Stained Glass Theatre of Joplin just a block from St. John’s Regional Medical Center.
“Two more feet in either direction, and I would be dead,” Morgan told The Vindicator’s Marveta Davis several days later, describing just how near she was to some of the many things that came crashing through the floor from upstairs while she was lying on her side behind a recliner in the basement of the building. That’s where she landed after she dove for cover when the air pressure suddenly changed and the doors flew open.
When the tornado hit, Morgan had just arrived at the theatre, where she was a volunteer, to help take down the sets and put away the props following the final performance of “I Remember Mama.” As she stepped out of her mother’s car, which had safely driven her and the bulk of her possessions from Deaf Missions in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Joplin that very day, she heard tornado sirens wailing. She hurried inside, made the front office staff and ushers aware of the approaching storm and urged them to get everyone down to the basement as quickly as possible, then headed there herself.
A friend who also was in the theatre when the twister slammed into it showed up shortly afterward and aided Morgan in emerging from the rubble that surrounded her. She was able to walk out of what was left of the building on her own power, but she was in some pain. One of her sides, the side she’d landed on, was bruised, and she had a gash on her left leg.
But despite the fact that she was hurt, the far-flung car looked like it’d been in a terrible accident and she’d never see most of her things again, Morgan was among the “lucky.” Many were far less fortunate. Nearby, two people who had been in the theatre lay dead, a third would die later and six others were seriously injured. One of the three victims she knew well enough to call her a friend.
In May of 2011, Morgan was a student at Ozark Christian College in Joplin and a part-time employee of Heart-to-Heart, a local home health- care agency. That’s also the month she turned 21. Since then she’s gone on to earn two bachelor of arts degrees from OCC, one in psychology, counseling and biblical justice and the other in bible and deaf ministry, both of which she received last year. She’s currently attending John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark., where she’s pursuing a master’s degree in counseling.
Morgan now works for a school district in the Joplin area as a sign language interpreter, but she still finds time to volunteer at the theatre and is planning to help backstage during an upcoming production. The theatre’s new home is a brick building a few blocks from its former location.
Five years ago, Morgan spent her Sunday mornings at Joplin’s College Heights Christian Church. Located just to the northeast of Missouri Southern State University, the church was active in the effort to assist the needy in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, establishing a distribution center at the church where people could drop off items they were donating to the cause.
These days Morgan worships at Christ Church of Oronogo (Mo.), which is where she did an internship in 2014 through OCC.
Morgan is the daughter of Liz Ratliff and the late Michael Ratliff, who passed away in early January. Her mother is the librarian for the Valley Falls school system but will be moving to Joplin once the school year is over and has been thinking about getting involved with the theatre by helping with costumes.
Morgan also has a younger sister, Logan, who graduated from VFHS three years ago. Logan is 20 now and a student at Washburn University in Topeka.
When the tornado hit the theater, did you think it was “all over,” and, if not, what were your thoughts at the time?
Ratliff – If you’re asking if I thought I would die in the storm, I didn’t. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really understand what was happening. I knew that it was a tornado, but it really didn’t register that what was happening was as devastating or catastrophic as it was. At the time, all I could do was pray.
The headline for the story in the papers about the experience you had read “Valley Falls native cheats death in Joplin tornado.” Do you think you cheated death and do you feel like you’re living on “borrowed time,” so to speak?
Ratliff – I felt like those words were a little bit heavy and didn’t match the experience. I don’t think I cheated death because I understand that God has a plan for my life. At the time, I knew there was nothing that I did or didn’t do that contributed to my survival. No one in the building I was in should have made it out. I’m not living on borrowed time. I’m living on God’s time.
If you could go back to Sunday, May 22, 2011 and do that day all over again, is there anything you would do differently?
Ratliff – Wow! I have definitely thought over this exact question on more than one occasion. There are various things that I wonder if they would have made a difference. Part of this journey has meant that I understand that, in the moment, I was using my best judgment and doing the best I knew how with the information I knew at the time. I couldn’t have done anything different that day than I did. That being said, I wouldn’t do anything differently.
When you woke up that morning, how would you describe the extent to which you had faith in God going into that day?
Ratliff – I had a strong faith in God. I became a believer in 2008 and had been walking with God for four years when the tornado hit.
The following morning when you woke up, how would you describe the extent to which you had faith in God going into that day?
Ratliff – I wish I could say I “woke up” the next morning. I spent most of that night wide awake, listening to the ever-present sounds of sirens and helicopters. My faith in God was even stronger on May 23 than it was on May 22. Nobody knew just how many were killed or the extent of the devastation at that point, but I knew enough from my experience to know that God was there in the midst of that storm and that He was going to be teaching me something incredible about Himself through all of this.
Overall, what has your faith journey been like since the day of the tornado?
Ratliff – The summer of the tornado was an emotional rollercoaster for everyone (myself included). I think what kept me grounded at all was my faith. In my emotional highs and lows I knew that God was constant. That’s a lesson that I will carry with me forever. I am learning about God just as much now as I was in 2011. I hope that process never ends.
In the story, Marveta wrote that your mother said Joplin is probably the most religious town in the world. Do you think that is true, and, if so, in what ways have you felt loved and comforted by your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?
Ratliff – I wouldn’t say that Joplin is the most religious town. There are lots of places that are extremely religious. When people describe a person or location as “religious” it doesn’t necessarily imply that they are Christian. Joplin has a strong faith community of Christ-followers. There are many kinds of churches in Joplin, a classic town in the Bible Belt, U.S.A., and certainly more than in Valley Falls, Kansas. I have felt loved and comforted by my brothers and sisters in Christ as we shared our stories together, cried together, laughed together, loved each other as best as we could, when they took me in, when we stood by each other as we adjusted to our “new normal”, as we shared the rough times and the times when we overcame, as they came from all over to help us clean-up, rebuild, and recover, and as we stuck by each other and as we still continue to walk with each other. The biblical metaphor for family became much more than a metaphor. That summer it became a reality.
If there was one thing you could say to the people of Joplin, what would you tell them at this time?
Ratliff – Joplin was put on the map by a tornado that made history. It stayed on the map because of how God touched the hearts of the many who came in contact with you. There are not many things that I can say with certainty that would speak for all the people of Joplin. Here’s one thing I can say with great certainty: People of Joplin, God is not finished with our story!
Aside from the obvious physical differences, in what ways has Joplin changed – for the better or the worse – since May 22, 2011?
Ratliff – I think that, because Joplin is a college town, the changes are many and constant. People come and go. What I think has changed for the people who were and are here is that we know on an experiential level that people are what matter. Things are just things.
Has the experience you had changed the way you approach life and if so, how?
Ratliff – Absolutely! The tornado changed how I approach life! I would say that the tornado changed how I approach life because it has shaped the way I view life. Life is precious and life is fleeting. The tornado made both of those concepts more real to me than they ever had been in the past. My life is lived much more intentionally and purposefully now. Not that I lived without intention and purpose prior to the tornado, but it has most definitely shaped the amount of fervency and attention that I pay towards being intentional and purposeful every day. Life is short. The tornado taught me to think eternal. I no longer live “in the moment” I live “for eternity”.
By Rick Nichols | Special to Metro Voice