“They say it was only 45 seconds, but it felt like 45 days.”
-- Ashley Miller, Joplin, Mo.
One year after a tornado tore through Joplin, Mo., Erica Tremblay still has trouble putting into words the devastation she witnessed.
“You can say to someone it was a mile wide and that it touched down for six and 12 miles, but until you are actually standing in the middle of it and every direction you look is disaster and destruction ... it’s totally indescribable,” she said.
The Los Angeles filmmaker, who called Lincoln home for four years, flew to the Ozark community with a documentary film crew five weeks after the deadly tornado struck Joplin on May 22, 2011.
She grew up in nearby Seneca and felt a responsibility to the town and its residents to chronicle the story of the storm and its aftermath.
“We felt like they deserve to have this,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve done it for them.”
Tremblay premiered her film, “Heartland: The Joplin Tornado,” Saturday in Joplin. “Heartland” was produced by Homespun Pictures, an independent film company founded by Tremblay and Bernard Parham, who helped Tremblay produce the film.
The 63-minute documentary, which Tremblay is submitting to film festivals and hopes to eventually distribute, combines amateur footage, home videos, news broadcasts, police dispatch transmissions and eyewitness interviews.
According to press material, the film is “a reminder to us all that we should hold tight to what is truly important in life: friends, family and home.”
“We wanted to go directly into people’s living rooms as opposed to telling the stories of, 'here were the rescuers, here was the relief effort or here was this,' because we knew everyone else would be coming at it from that angle,” she said.
Homespun focused on an “Americana story,” literally told from the living rooms of people who had their houses blown away from around them.
“It became more of a story of what happens when you’re faced with death head on, of what goes through your mind and how do you recover from that,” Tremblay said.
* * *
“That tornado had contact with the ground for 16 to 19 minutes and chewed up a 6-mile path of heavily populated Joplin, Mo. It was almost literally a perfect storm.”
-- Gary Bandy, KSN meteorologist, Joplin, Mo.
The tornado killed 160 people, destroyed nearly 7,000 houses and damaged more than 800 others. Damage has been estimated at $2.8 billion.
Tremblay was in Los Angeles when she heard the news.
“Immediately my heart just sank,” she said. “I started calling everyone I could think of to find out if my family was OK.”
Tremblay’s friend, actor Patrick Wilkins, who grew up in Lincoln and is the film’s co-producer, had a similar reaction.
His first instinct was to help. Somehow. Some way.
“There are a lot of people who have helped me out of some crazy difficult times in my life,” he said. “I always wanted to be able to do the same. I would see things like (Hurricane) Katrina and the tsunami and I would go, 'It would be nice to help,' but then I never did anything.”
This time he did. He boarded a plane, flew to Missouri and helped with the relief effort.
“As I was driving through it, I was in shock,” he said. “I couldn’t wrap my brain around what I was seeing. It was like an atom bomb went off.”
So moved by what he saw, he felt compelled to document his experience through photos and video. Tremblay used some of it for her film.
Wilkins, though, wasn’t sure he should. He didn’t want to intrude on people’s privacy. A photojournalist he met convinced him otherwise, telling Wilkins he had an obligation to do so.
“He told me, 'This needs to be recorded,'” Wilkins said. “All I needed was that little bit of a push and little bit of permission, and the (Joplin) people were absolutely fine with it.”
* * *
“The whole world had changed. It was gone. It was all gone.”
-- Matt Rose, Joplin, Mo.
Tremblay arrived a few weeks after Wilkins with an eight-person film crew. Like Wilkins, she was shocked by what she saw. The town where she had spent much of her youth shopping, seeing movies, hanging out with friends and working odd jobs was gone.
“You had no idea where you were,” she said. “It was like doing some sort of hallucinogenic drug. You’re standing there and you cannot make any sense of what is around you. Some things look familiar. Some things kind of seem familiar. But it seems like you’ve been transported to some kind of alternate universe.
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” she added. “It truly is something you can’t put words into.”
Tremblay filmed for nine days and returned this spring for another four days.
Among the people she interviewed was Joplin resident Abi Almidinger, curator for Joplin’s Found Photos. Almidinger used Facebook to reconnect residents with photos lost in the storm.
“These people not only were left with an immense loss of life, but all their belongings were gone, too,” Tremblay said. “That in itself is a huge tragedy. That was one of the main focuses of our film. What do you do when you have nothing left?”
It’s that kind of storytelling Wilkins believes will resonate with viewers.
“What I love about the film is what it’s not,” he said. “I love that it’s no storm-chasing documentary. I love that it’s not a political documentary about how FEMA has failed it citizens or whatever. What I love about it is it’s these intimate stories about these people’s lives and their experiences and what we do as human beings to heal.”