JOPLIN, Mo -- Many of Joplin's residents had to "ride out" the viscous May 22 tornado in bathtubs, closets, and center hallways. Many people killed and injured in that tornado were swept away from their homes. It would have been less likely if they would have had a proper shelter.
One man has made it his mission to provide shelters for all of the children of Joplin for free.
Nearly 82% of homes in the Joplin area had no basement prior to the tornado. Without a storm shelter it left families defenseless against mother nature. One family KY3 News spoke with knows that all too well.
"I told him I loved him and I'd see him in an hour and a half. That was the last conversation I had with him." Tammy Niederhelman was at work the day the tornado hit. Her husband and son were at home.
"When he went to our back door," she said, "our front windows blew in."
When the tornado hit at Tammy's house at 20th and Texas Avenue, her husband was flung out. Before he was knocked unconscious, he saw the roof of their house torn off with their 12 year old son still inside.
"He said it was like watching a can opener take our roof off," Tammy said.
Her son Zachary had been hiding in a bathtub. After the tornado had passed he was no where to be found.
"I feel like I sent him in that bathroom," Tammy said, "Maybe if I wouldn't have told him to go there he would have been sucked out with his dad and been okay."
Zachary wasn't okay and fell victim to the twister. He certainly wasn't the only one that day.
"Any time it storms any time the weather is frightful, they become terrified and crippled almost. There are kids sleeping in closets today even if the weather is good," said Project JOMO founder Russel Gehrke.
Russel is spearheading Project JOMO--making sure the six thousand kids in Joplin who still don't have proper shelter have a safe place to go when another storm hits.
"The idea is to make affordable shelters. Donate some shelters if we need to. Whatever it takes to give these kids an anchor," he explained.
The shelter is made from concrete with FEMA specifications, but the concrete is coated with a secret weapon--a material that managed to weather the storm better than most.
"If we use materials that playgrounds are made out of we could probably make low cost shelters for people in the future," said Russel.
The plastic used in playgrounds is called polyethylene. "It's like a bulletproof vest. It will stop a bullet, but it won't stop a truck. Our shelter can stop bullets and stop a truck," Russel.
For families like the Niederhelman's the shelter will come a little too late.
"There hasn't been a moment that has went by since that happen that I've questioned if I wouldn't have sent him where I sent him…would he have lived? If we would have had a storm shelter, would he still be here? Would he have made it to that storm shelter?"
Project JOMO hopes to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.
"You definitely realize how precious of a gift you have with your child and if you have the opportunity to get a storm shelter," Tammy said, "you never know. There could be another tornado pass through here next tornado season."
Project JOMO has set a goal to have shelters in place and on the ground and ready for use before the anniversary of the May 22nd event in 2012. Russel has been funding his mission with his own money. He has written two books, Recylcing Projects for the Evil Genius and Renewable Energies for your Home and created a cell phone app. All proceeds from those go directly to Project JOMO.
He is also accepting donations to the project which you can do through the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Make sure to type in Project JOMO when donating.