Like millions of Americans on May 22, Mike Gullett was dreaming of summer. In what had become a family tradition, Gullett’s family gathered at his home in Carl Junction, Mo., on the northwest edge of Joplin, to prepare the pool for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. Ahead lay scores of lazy summer days and backyard barbecues.
But while the Gulletts and most residents of the area were enjoying that warm Sunday afternoon, a monster storm churned in the west over Kansas. It was gathering strength for an explosive strike that would, in a matter of only minutes, transform not just a city, but an entire region and everyone who calls this place home.
“We knew there was some bad weather coming possibly,” Gullett said. “But we’ve seen that before. The lightning started, so we decided to go inside and eat something, hoping that after it passed we could get going again.”
But the storm intensified. They lost power. Soon some of the 14 people who had gathered at the Gulletts’ home began receiving ominous text messages.
“Some of my friends there were getting texts from their wives who were in Baxter (Baxter Springs, Kan.) and other places, saying, ‘They’ve just reported that Home Depot’s been blown away and Walgreens is gone.’”
Gullett, who spent 25 years as a newspaper photographer before joining the faculty in PSU’s Department of Communication in 2000, still works for the Associated Press on a contract basis and he knew it was time to go to work.
“I told my wife, ‘I have to go,’” Gullett said.
With just fragments of information gleaned from frantic text messages, Gullett headed into Joplin, unsure of what to expect. He began to see damage as he drove in from the northwest and then suddenly he entered a surreal world – a world that nothing in his many years of covering disasters prepared him for.
“No first-responders yet,” Gullett said. “By this time, the first responders were the neighbors. Neighbors were helping neighbors. As I walked down past St. John’s (Regional Medical Center), I couldn’t tell what street I was on. And then I saw people. I’ve never seen people just walking in shock — masses of people, just walking. They didn’t know really where to go.”
Gullett spent the next several days taking photographs and transmitting them to the Associated Press. The dramatic photographic story he told was repeated in major newspapers, on television and in online media across the U.S. and around the world. It was a compelling story that was at the same time heartbreaking and heartwarming, dramatic and uplifting. For his work, Gullett shared the Associated Press “Beat of the Week” honors with two other photographers covering the disaster.
As a newspaper photographer, Gullett has seen lots of “terrible things,” but nothing has affected him so profoundly as did the May 22 tornado. The sight before him that afternoon was so overwhelming that, for just the second time in his career, Gullett wondered whether he would be able to make a picture.
“This is my hometown,” Gullett said, pausing as the emotions came rushing back. “When this happened, it was kind of like I was personally involved, because it’s my neighbors.”
But Gullett did go to work. The story, he said, was too important not to tell.
“(Photojournalists) take pictures to inform,” Gullett said. “That’s the only reason. We’re informing the public. All the donations, all the volunteers are only there because the media informed the world.”
As rescue and recovery transitioned to clean-up and rebuilding, Gullett transitioned to shooting only occasionally, in order to document the long road to healing and rebuilding. It is a process not only for the city, but for the survivors and Gullett, as well.
“I still remember the first bad picture I had to take when I came out of school,” Gullett said. “There’s certain images you just don’t forget. In Joplin, it wasn’t that there was any one image that I saw, it was the whole thing. Just day after day of it.”