This started out like the dozens, if not hundreds, of natural disasters that have occurred in my lifetime. On May 22 at 5:41pm a category EF5 tornado, the most powerful rating in the system, tore through the middle of Joplin, Missouri, a town of 50,000 people. In a matter of an hour 7,000 homes, hundreds of business, schools and churches were destroyed, over 140 lives were taken and thousands more changed forever. I heard about the disaster through various news sources and as usual felt sorry for those affected but didn’t make a conscious effort to provide any assistance. Then a friend showed me a picture of an intersection in Joplin with before and after views. In a million years I would have never guessed they were the same. I started to realize how awful the disaster was, but still wasn’t doing anything to help. On Tuesday or Wednesday my friend Tracy posted a note on Facebook that she was trying to get a group of people together to go out and help with the disaster relief and for whatever reason, I hope that it was a desire to do something good for other people, I decided to go.
Five of us flew out Friday afternoon; I didn’t know Tracy very well, I’d met Mark once or twice before and Karen and Rachel were new acquaintances who worked with Mark. Karen grew up in Joplin until she was 16 and moved to Salt Lake with her parents but still had family in the area. We stayed in Kansas City our first night and drove first to Galena, Kansas Saturday morning to meet up with Karen’s brother who was wanting to work with us. Since Galena is a few miles from Joplin it was spared from any physical damage but its residents lost jobs, friends and family in Joplin. Karen’s brother, Ray, warned us that what we were going to see would blow us away.
As we drove closer to the town we began to see signs of the tornado – broken branches, bent street signs, the occasional broken window. But when we got to the edge of the tornado zone it was immediately apparent. Roofs were caved in, windows shattered, trees toppled over, cars beaten and battered to little more than useless chunks of metal. What we didn’t realize was that we hadn’t even come close to seeing the worst of the damage. Over the next three days we saw the Home Depot that was nothing more than an enormous pile of scrap metal. WalMart appeared to be intact until you looked behind the front wall and realized there was nothing there. Hundreds of homes were completely obliterated. I found a lot where the only evidence that anything had been there at all were front porch steps that led to nothing but a few rocks that remained from the foundation of the house. Other homes were nothing more than giant piles of wood, shingles, stray metal, and anything the tornado could mix in. The only way I can describe what I saw is that it looked like an atomic bomb went off. There was just nothing left. Even the bark had been stripped off the trees.
One of the first thoughts that came to my mind when I saw the homes, schools and businesses that had been affected was “What next?” When I asked Ray he said that was the same question everyone else had. The obvious answer was to rebuild but who knew how long that would take. Who knew if the town would recover – if the jobs would return and if the schools would be filled again. Everyone wanted answers to the same questions that no one knew the answers to. President Obama’s visit on Sunday brought peace and hope to many people as he promised that they would not be forgotten. America would not let them fall through the cracks. That Joplin will rebuild stronger and better than ever. It gave people what they needed –Hope –because sometimes that’s all we need in the moment.
Situations like this remind us of the goodness of people. During the storm people gave their lives guiding others to safety until the walls came down on top of them; holding doors shut against the storm until they were carried away; sacrificing their own bodies to cover and protect others. After the storm people came from all over the country donating time, money, services, and anything else they could. Trucks constantly passed through the streets offering hot food and cold drinks to survivors and volunteers. People donated equipment for debris removal. Others gave free tetanus shots. Others sharpened chainsaws, some gave free chiropractic work while some where there just for people to have someone to talk to and counsel with. Everyone was giving in anyway they could.
One thing that the storm couldn’t take away was the spirit of the people. Whether it was the person with a sense of humor who spray painted “For Sale: Open Floor Plan” on their house with no roof and missing walls, the tree removal crews that hauled their equipment from out of state to donate their time and services, or anyone of the thousands of people who placed an American flag in the middle of the remains of their home for Memorial Day, the spirit of the people of Joplin lives on. It hasn’t been broken and will not be broken. They will rebuild. They will be better because of this. They’re not going anywhere.
*This is not the full story, if you'd like to read the rest shoot me and email