I have lived in the Branson area for over 15 years. I went to elementary school, Jr. High and High School here, and even commuted from Branson during majority of my college years. We have a very unique community. We are small, close-knit and we work as a team. We love welcoming and entertaining millions of visitors each year.
I am very passionate about this wonderful town. I found my dream job here. I get to talk to all of our fans every day– I manage the Branson, Missouri Facebook page. It is a blast; I get to answer questions, hear wonderful stories, interact with new people and represent my wonderful hometown. I also get to blog about fun things to do in the area. This is a blog post I never thought I would write.
One week ago, on Saturday, February 25th, The Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its Annual Black Tie Celebration at The Branson Convention Center. Over 650 community members attended. Many of the attendees stayed at the Hilton Convention Center Hotel the night of Black Tie. I rented a suite on the 12th floor. Several of my friends got ready in the room before heading downstairs to the event.
I shared an album of photos from Black Tie with our Branson, Missouri Facebook fans before leaving work on Tuesday, February 28th. Sharing pictures with fans is one of my favorite things to do because they get to see what is going on in town even when they aren’t able to be here.
I left for work that evening, picked up my children, and went home. The local news reminded viewers that there was a threat for severe weather that night. Eventually storms started to pop up, and the news started to cut into regular broadcasting with tornado warnings in our region. Around 1 AM the news said one of the warned areas now included the Branson area. I live north of town and wasn’t under the warning. I kept watching the storm getting closer and closer to Branson. Then I received a text from a meteorologist.
Then the local news started saying things like “debris ball on radar” and “confirmed on ground by spotters”. I froze. My heart was racing. What do I do? I felt so helpless staring at the TV through watery eyes. Then I hear a scared five-year-old-boy’s voice saying “Mommy, can you ask the TV man if Grandma and Grandpa are okay?” My son had come in the room without my knowledge.
I started contacting loved ones. Texts started to come in, like this one from my boss:
As soon as the kids were back in bed, I headed to town. The first thing I saw was the Hilton Convention Center Hotel– the place I just stayed a few days before and had posted pictures of on the Branson Page earlier that day. It was pitch-black, but their emergency lights were eerily flashing. With each flash I could see broken windows, curtains hanging from the rooms and debris everywhere. I was in shock. What has happened to my town?
I talked to the police and they gave me a basic idea of where the tornado hit. It sounded dangerously close to neighborhoods. I drove along roads where I had family; they were all okay. I drove by a neighborhood that I have friends in, and almost bought my first house in, and it was not okay. The police would not let me help search the area because it was too dangerous. There were live downed power lines.
It was too early for someone inexperienced like me to help and I did not want to hinder their efforts. I drove by the hospital, they had power and were not damaged. I got to our office and we had power too. I started poring through my Facebook newsfeed. There were lots of “We’re safe!” stories, but there were also “So-and-so lost their roof” or “Our business is destroyed”. I couldn’t believe it. People started posting pictures. “Is this really happening?!” kept racing through my mind.
Then people started asking questions on the Branson, Missouri Facebook page. I didn’t know how to respond. I kept typing out an update, only to delete what I wrote before posting. It almost felt like typing it and hitting “Share” made it real. Maybe if I didn’t say anything, it would all just disappear. Eventually I wrote something and hit “Share”. The outpouring of love, kindness and concern was immediate.
“…will be there around the 17th. plan on rolling up our sleeves and helping out. Bless You Branson ”
“I definitely think of Branson as my home away from home and also as my future retirement home. I absolutely love this town and I’m praying for everyone affected by the tornado. I know that when I come to visit in July, I won’t even be able to tell that a tornado ever went through. The people of Branson are strong and will recover!”
“Thank you for keeping us informed! We are still planning on visiting in April! Those in Mena Arkansas love Branson…..and are praying!”
“We are coming to Branson Saturday for a scheduled visit to the Titanic Museum for girl scouts. I have some bags of childrens clothes and some adults I was saving for a yard sale, however, if there is a need I would GLADLY bring them with us Saturday if there is a place to drop them off. SOme stuff has never been worn, and most everything else is very gently worn.”
I had a hard time keeping up with the page. I typed through tears as people shared their wonderful stories and kind words about our community. My heart hurt when I had to confirm that certain businesses were damaged– especially when I know the families that own them. One locally owned business that was affected was Track Family Fun Parks, it was Track #4. My brothers both got their first jobs as teenagers there, and the first blog I wrote for Explore Branson was about one of their other Track locations.
I kept an eye on my personal Facebook feed as well. The majority of residential areas in town were not damaged. But pictures of damaged homes of friends did begin to appear. Amazingly, with each picture was always a caption letting everyone know that they were SAFE. I am so happy that everyone in our town survived, but it is gut-wrenching to see them searching for their belongings in yards and bushes.
I have always loved this community. Seeing how resilient and selfless this area is has really warmed my heart. People aren’t complaining, they aren’t whining, they aren’t seeking attention. They are rolling up their sleeves and helping each other. I’ve even seen people that have damage to their own houses, but that are too busy helping others to work on their own property. It makes me proud of my community.
The majority of businesses were not damaged, are doing what they can to help displaced residents and the people helping them. They are keeping their welcome sign on so that visitors keep coming and will be here when damaged ones are ready to triumphantly reopen.
Then there are the people that don’t live here. They are pouring into town to help clean up. I am sitting at the Chamber office watching a steady stream of people come in, signup to volunteer, and then head out when they receive an assignment. If people can’t make it to town, they are flooding our Facebook page with well wishes, support and encouragement. The support has come from everywhere– as far as Australia!
Although there are some damaged businesses, the majority sustained no damage and are operating their normal schedules (you can get an idea of how the tornado bounced around and spared a lot of properties in the Walking Tour Video Series below). Our community has really come together to provide care and assistance for residents affected by the tornado. We are blessed everyone is safe and very grateful for the wonderful outpouring of support that we have received.
For information about volunteering, visit www.volunteerbranson.org
Donations can be made online at: www.cfozarks.org/donate; or by mail to: Community Foundation of the Ozarks, P.O. Box 8960, Springfield, MO 65801. Please note “Branson Tornado Relief and Recovery Fund” in the fund/program box online or on checks.
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