Following the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, I couldn’t get rid of this little voice inside my head that kept urging me to “do something” to help that I just couldn’t shake.
As a result, I decided to join local businessman Matt Hilton and a group of others from McKinney on the trip to pitch in and help the victims of the tornado that wiped out a six mile long (from east to west) and nearly one mile wide swath of the city of approximately 50,000 on that fateful day – May 22, 2011.
I am no stranger to Joplin. Since January of 2004, when my son Colin was recruited to play football at Missouri Southern University, I have probably made somewhere around 50 trips there and back. Those trips were typically filled with a sense of excitement and anticipation which surrounded game day, or the joy and satisfaction around celebrations of awards ceremonies, volunteering with the booster club or graduation. I never thought I’d be making that five hour drive with such a feeling of dread.
I dreaded to see what had happened to the city that I had become so familiar with – the places where we had shopped, the restaurants we had frequented so often, the sites I had driven by time after time.
I had, like all of you, seen the pictures of the devastation left by the storm on television or via various news sites, but I was not prepared for the jaw dropping sight that confronted me like a horrific nightmare that startles you awake in the middle of the night. In truth, the remains that were left in the wake of the F5 tornado reminded me of photos I had seen portraying the aftermath of bombings during WWII.
Picture an area of McKinney from Lake Forest, west of 75 and east to Hwy. 5, and between Virginia Parkway to about White Street, reduced to rubble. A wall standing here and there, a fireplace left but not much else surrounding it. Or the shell of what was once a home looking as if King Kong had come through and kicked the house and left it sitting on it’s foundation askew. These were remnants of lives that have been frayed midstream and forced down a path that no one foresaw and no one planned. Vehicles sturng out across the landscape like giant Matchbox cars that had been left to rust and abandon, broken into so many pieces, they were just waiting to be added to the scrap metal pile.
My assignment the first day was to take applications from those who were applying for assistance from the Salvation Army – vouchers for food, clothing, gas – basic necessities when you have nothing but the clothes on your back, maybe your wallet or purse and a cell phone. What I experienced is that most of the victims who often waited patiently for 30 or more minutes to sit before me and answer the questions which would determine their eligibility for assistance, needed to talk about what had happened. I became another person who would listen to their experience – the therapist who said nothing, but was an attentive, non-judgmental listener.
I head stories of minutes of terror, during which thoughts of certain death and fervent prayer were a constant. There was the guy in his 20s who jumped in his bathtub as the windows blew out of his apartment. He lay curled up inside the tub with no cover as debris pounded over his body, leaving him badly bruised and with a crushed finger, but his life intact.
A 67-year-old man fell as he was scurrying into his basement space, his foot caught on the stairs, he was trapped as debris blew over him and formed a cave of safety of sorts, which ended up protecting him from the blows of more flying objects. He told of seeing what he believes were angels as he lay there in the darkness, waiting for the storm to pass.
My next “customer” turned out to be a woman, who was 54 (I remember exactly how old she was because I’ll never forget her). As she sat down at my table we began a bit of small talk. All she had left, she said, was her purse and her cell phone, which she had grabbed on the way to take cover in her bathroom. As she shared that she had spent the time during the tornado on her knees praying in her bathroom, tears began streaming down her face. She said she hasn’t been able to stop crying for a month. “I just wish I could stop crying – you’d think I’d be all cried out by now,” she said. I assured her that it was quite alright and I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I just wanted to jump over the table and hug her and tell her it would be OK – I didn’t.
I heard story after story from those who lost everything, including friends. Though they didn’t have much in the way of material goods in the first place, they down to the person, felt blessed to be alive.
During the second day in Joplin I again worked at the Salvation Army tent, this time serving free food to volunteers and victims. I was moved as I met volunteers who had come from Pennsylvania, New York, D.C., Indiana, Illinois, California and Louisiana. Many of the volunteers are retired citizens who want to give back. They put their lives on hold to travel to where they are needed for two weeks at a time. Many of the volunteers had to fly into Kansas City or Tulsa in order to get a rental car – there are no rental cars available in the Joplin area. All that were available are needed by victims to replace their destroyed means of transportation.
I worked with two individuals who were victims of Katrina in New Orleans. One of them, Anne, told me that she had been the recipient of help from volunteers who came to her aid after Katrina. “It’s my turn to do what was done for me,” she said. “I’ll be back in July and then in August. I know what this is like firsthand.”
I wish I could have stayed longer, but obligations back home could not be put off any longer. It will take years for Joplin to recover and rebuild. It will never be the same, but perhaps like Greensburg, Kansas, which was wiped out by a tornado in 2007, it will become a town united, better in some ways and stronger for having survived.
I’ll be going back whenever I can, to help pick up the pieces.