CARTHAGE – After an EF5 tornado carved a mile-wide path of destruction through the city of Joplin on May 22, 2011, Thad Beeler surveyed the damage in his parents’ home. The tornado uprooted three large trees, throwing them on top of the house. It flipped his parents’ car and wrapped it around a neighbor’s tree. It ripped a six-foot-wide patio door out of the side of the house and drove a block of wood through three walls and a toaster oven.
But Beeler thought it odd that family photos and artwork hanging on the walls looked undisturbed, as if nothing had happened. He then looked outside the window and noticed the remains of a neighbor’s house.
“That house didn’t have walls, let alone pictures,” he said.
The following day, Beeler was at the First Baptist Church of Carthage, where he served as music minister and ministry outreach director, when a gentleman came in and asked what he ought to do with a photo that had fallen in his lawn, roughly a dozen miles from Joplin.
In response to this man’s question, Beeler and members of FBC Carthage began a ministry that has helped to piece together lives shattered by the Joplin tornado by restoring lost photographs. The ministry, called “National Disaster Photo Rescue,” now operates as a separate organization, and Beeler serves as its executive director.
During the past decade, the photo rescue team has collected, cleaned and systematically preserved nearly 40,000 photos lost during the Joplin tornado, some of them discovered as far as 200 miles away.
Through what they call “reunification events,” the ministry has returned roughly 20,000 photos to their owners during the past decade. During these events, “reunification specialists” trained in grief counseling help people locate their lost photos, listen to their stories and offer, alongside other resources, a gift Bible. Today, the remaining photos are held at a Joplin museum, which partners with the ministry occasionally to host additional “reunification events.”
The National Disaster Photo Rescue presented a commemorative piece of art to the Joplin museum on the 10th anniversary of the disaster. The artwork, called “Lost Photos of Joplin – Always Remember,” is made up of images collected from the wreckage of the tornado.
Many people “had nothing left” after the tornado struck Joplin, Beeler said. Time after time, he witnessed the healing that came into people’s lives when they received their once lost photos.
Beeler recalled the story of one family, who had lost everything–not because their home was completely destroyed, but because all their personal belongings were contaminated by chemicals and radioactive materials from a nearby hospital that had been destroyed.
“They weren’t allowed to go back to the house for photos,” Beeler said. “The only ones that they could get back were found in farm fields.”
In coming weeks, Beeler and his wife will personally restore roughly 1,000 photos to an elderly couple – Jim and Peggy – who left the photos in Joplin when they moved to North Carolina many years ago. By collecting information about the family from their lost photos, Beeler eventually traced down the couple, contacted them and got to hear their story.
Sadly, Jim and Peggy have grieved the death of multiple family members in recent weeks, but Beeler hopes they will find some comfort when they see the once lost photos of these loved ones.
The “Lost Photos of Joplin” project has gained recognition around the globe because the ministry has developed a system for returning photos that never before existed. The ministry has offered help following disasters in Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, Texas and California. They’ve received calls for aid and advice after hurricanes hit the United States coast and after a Tsunami flooded the coasts of Japan.
“I look at this (ministry) today, and I look at the potential for this in the future, and it is enormous,” Beeler said.
“I believe churches are absolutely the most uniquely suited to handle this. The church is one of the only organizations that deals with life and death matters from very birth to very death,” he said. And this photo recovery ministry deals with people’s intimate lives and memories. “I believe with my whole heart that this is something that churches can do.”
“Why God landed (this ministry) here, I don’t know,” Beeler added. “But I do know that we chose to follow His lead, and we’re going to keep doing that until He shuts the door.”
To learn more about this photo recovery ministry, visit nationaldisasterphotorescue.org.