Two years ago, a catastrophic tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., killing 162 people and injuring more than 1,000. At the time, my wife and I were living a couple hours away in Branson, Mo., and I was able to spend some time volunteering in the relief effort.
The horrific devastation that storm wrought is something that still haunts me when I think about it, but just as unforgettable was the incredible bravery and resilience I saw in the people of Joplin. What follows is a column I wrote for the Branson Tri-Lakes News just a few days after the twister struck.
An opportunity to volunteer with the tornado relief effort opened up for me Thursday morning, and I jumped on it.
I wanted to help the recovery, of course — I’m sure pretty much everyone in the Branson area has felt that desire — but, on reflection, I realized that wasn’t actually my primary motivation.
With so many people experiencing pain and devastation at a level our nation has — thankfully — rarely experienced in its history, and it happening so unbelievably close, watching the events unfold on a newspaper page or a TV screen in the comfort of my home didn’t sit right with me.
I wanted to see it first-hand, to be able to feel a human connection to this and to try to make some kind of real sacrifice — however small — to the people who are hurting so much.
So I called and signed up Wednesday to volunteer and, thinking I would be a part of the clean-up, I dressed for the day in the most rugged, torn and paint-stained clothes I could find in the back of my closet.
Despite my uniform, the job assigner at the Missouri Southern State University Student Center apparently thought the scrawny 22-year-old sitting before him would be better working on a computer instead of chainsawing 40-foot trees. He was probably right.
So I spent the morning helping organize a homeowners’ database for Americorps, one of the agencies serving in the area.
And although I was removed from the actual victims, it still struck me hard that every name was a real person whose life had been turned upside-down.
There were more than 200 entries on the list, and that came from just preliminary field work in one of four “zones” hit hardest by Sunday’s EF5 tornado.
Afterward, I took a short drive through Range Line Road and some other areas the twister tore through.
I figured, if given the chance, I could write about what I saw and felt for those who want to know, but can’t come themselves.
Now I know how truly foolish I was to think mere words would do the devastation any remote type of justice.
I could tell you that I saw metal walls crumbled like tissue paper, trees carved into jagged splinters and an entire retail store reduced to a pile of rubble, but that would miss the terrible, gut-wrenching tales of those who lost loved ones, homes and everything they owned.
But if I tell you, for example, about the now-homeless young man I met, who was volunteering Thursday after losing his job — not because he was fired, but because the twister wiped his place of
employment off the map — then you miss the scope of the event, because next door to every heartbreaking story is another and another — for miles in every direction.
And nothing I write could ever convey the raw, overwhelming emotions of watching through tear-filled eyes as a person sifts through the remains of where they once tried to build a life. Of course, I daresay that far more capable authors than me would find that impossible, too.
I’ve read that the city looks “like a bomb went off” in it, and I suppose that’s pretty accurate. It’s terrifying, though, to realize that, in a matter of minutes, nature can create destruction that is only rivaled by something that took mankind thousands of years to invent.
Once, as a staff writer for my university newspaper, I worked on an article four hours only to see the entire thing deleted by a computer crash. Given my reaction to that trifle, I know full well what I would do if I were facing what so many Joplin residents are: I would give up.
But, amazingly, that is not what is happening. In my very, very brief tour through the disaster area, and in a few short talks with those working in it, I saw a resolve and a determination I would have never thought possible. Yes, I saw sadness, but not hopelessness. There was disbelief, yet also resilience.
In a front-page article in The Joplin Globe Thursday, City Manager Mark Rohr was reported as being asked when Joplin would stop searching for the 156 residents still unaccounted for.
“We never give up,” was his response.
After seeing his city, I believe it.