Joplin, Missouri looks like any other mid-sized American town when you first drive into it. There is a Starbucks, a Lowe’s Home Improvement, and countless other franchised businesses scattered about the streets. As you drive, you can smell the fried goodness of McDonald’s fries, see the billboards for businesses begging for your hard-earned cash, and get excited when you manage to make two green lights in a row on a congested central road. These hallmarks of modern suburbia continue for about a mile or maybe two, and then you enter the disaster zone.
The tornado that hit Joplin last month touched the ground for fourteen square miles. It was a mile wide, and left in its path total destruction. Many buildings are damaged beyond repair and recognition, and others have been completely obliterated. Like most Americans, I had seen photos online and the news coverage from all the major outlets shortly after the tornado hit. These images hardly do the destruction justice. Words, especially any this author can scribe, cannot do it justice either.
This past weekend, Beth Leone Noble, Patrice Ray, and me worked along side the Americorps and strangers from all over the mid-west and other parts of the country doing debris clean up in Joplin. Our journey to Joplin was organized by Beth Leone Noble on short notice after she felt compelled to help. Always up for an adventure, I agreed to go without hesitation and on very short notice. I thought when I agreed I knew what I was getting into. Growing up on the coast, I have survived hurricanes minor and major, including Bertha, Fran and Floyd. I’ve helped with debris clean up with Floyd in the past and I figured this would be no different. I was wrong. As hard as we worked over the two days we spent in Joplin, when one looks around one can see that all of that hard work had barely made a dent in the big picture. Restoring Joplin will clearly take many months, perhaps even many years.
Our days began at Missouri Southern State University, where Americorps had set up volunteer headquarters at the stadium. The site was reminiscent of a military field operation, with buses, support vehicles, and the signature olive green tents dotting the landscape. These buses from the school district would be our shuttles to the project sites, and offer a more intimate view of the destruction the tornado caused as they ferried us through Joplin’s streets.
The Home Depot is gone. The only part that remains is one small still standing portion of its massive structure, hunks of concrete and mangled debris and merchandise. The Walgreen’s is also gone. Countless other businesses are unrecognizable, with broken concrete, walls, shredded insulation, and mangled steel rafters dotting the parking lots. The strip malls and shopping centers once housing these businesses have gone from thriving centers of commerce to nothing more than a ghostly junk yard.
The residential areas where we worked are worse. All that remains of some houses are the concrete slabs comprising their foundations. The trees, as far as the eye can see, look from another world. Branchless trunks reach up into the sky, naked as if begging to be transplanted somewhere else. Hunks of twisted metal are wrapped around them. There is a mattress impaled on one of them. Cars are totaled and strewn about as if some child picked up a pile of Hot Wheels and tossed it. FEMA Urban Search and Rescue “X” markings are sprayed on what walls are still standing.
Lawns have been replaced by debris piles, and the summertime smells of barbecues and flowers have been replaced by the smells of rotting garbage and decay. There are splinters of wood, branches, parts of walls, insulation, appliances, household furniture, electronics, and personal belongings scattered everywhere. They are the remains of what use to be peoples’ material lives.
As we clean up the debris, taking care to separate it into piles according to FEMA guidelines so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can collect it, we catch a glimpse into the lives of those that have been destroyed. We find clothing, VHS tapes, records, and childrens’ shoes and toys. We see at our first project site a house with one of the kitchen walls still standing, and not much else. The cupboard doors have been torn off, but the contents remain unscathed. We find birthday cards and collections of other mementos. There are Christmas decorations buried under trash, vegetation and drywall. We find a 2011 high school graduation program, showing that the ceremony had been held at the badly damaged Joplin High School in the not so distant past. We see what looks like a war zone on every street we work on, as if some military superpower dropped a large bomb on the unsuspecting residents of Joplin.
Driving through the affected areas, we see the hospital that was hit and plastered on the news. We see and work about a quarter-mile from the pond where Will Norton’s body was finally found after a desperate search. Some of the homes have “K-9” spray painted on them to indicate that the dogs need to search for bodies inside. In one yard that we see, are two small crosses adorned with flowers, remembering the residents who did not make it.
Some of the residents are there. They are grateful and shout “thank you” from their yards as we walk down the street to the project site from the drop zone. We do not see many of them, and some of the ones we do see appear shell-shocked still. We learn from one of the Americorps volunteers that there are not more of them around because many of the residents are still in the hospital.
The randomness of the tornado’s destruction is amazing and surreal. It can obliterate a house, but leave a coffee mug from the kitchen untouched in the front yard under piles of debris. It can send a shard of wood flying through the insulation, drywall, wood and siding of the wall of a house. It can destroy all the houses on one side of the two-lane street, but leave the houses on the other side virtually unscathed.
I can imagine as we sort through the debris the terror of the residents of Joplin as the tornado struck. I can hear the screams. The children cry. The dogs barking. I can feel the shock and adrenaline. I imagine the utter sense of hopelessness, and the emptiness that must accompany knowing that you very likely are not going to make it through the storm. I can hear the residents praying for mercy. It is a powerful imaginative image.
Joplin, however, is not a sad place. It is not a place overwhelmed with despair. It is a hopeful place. Saturday alone, we were three of two thousand volunteers that descended upon the city to help the strangers of Joplin. Tents, trucks and trailers are scattered throughout the city offering disaster relief services and help. The American Red Cross delivers icy cold drinks and food to us volunteers in the field in order to help us stave off heat exhaustion in the unrelenting summer sun. It seems like every volunteer and relief organization, big or small, is there.
American flags wave proudly throughout the fields of rubble. Some houses have messages of hope and love written crudely on them in spray paint by owners and volunteers alike. One message reads, “We’ll be O.K.” The Home Depot has erected a tent amidst its wreckage and is open for business, a banner hanging outside proudly proclaiming, “We’re rebuilding with you, Joplin.” The Walgreen’s has already started rebuilding, making significant progress, and is operating out of a trailer in the meantime. Businesses pledge on electronic and print marquees that “We will get through this together” and “God bless Joplin.”
We work on the property of a woman named Janis. Janis and her family heard the warning sirens when the tornado was headed their direction and went into their basement to be safe from the storm. Their tiny basement windows blew out, and they started to rush back upstairs out of fear. But, their safe fell through the floor and blocked their path. Janis stated that they took this as a sign from above that they were to remain in the basement. As I work with others to carry one of the walls of her house out of the back yard and to the front curb, I can’t help but think how lucky she was that they did stay in the basement. Janis is an older middle-aged woman, clearly not of significant means, and apparently not in the best of health. Looking around at what remains of her property, I would imagine that most people would sit with their heads hung low, crying and wondering, “Why me?” But, this is not Janis. Janis tells Beth we were not to worry about them; that they were grateful to be alive and have so many wonderful people helping them out. This was the common theme from every one of the Joplin residents we encountered over the weekend.
As I sit watching the evening news and Twittering as I write this (I’m good at multitasking), I can’t help but contrast what I see our society portrayed as with what I saw from the people of Joplin. Watching the “news,” and the advertisements that seem to interrupt the broadcast every 30 seconds or so, I cannot help but notice that we appear to have become a nation of materialistic complainers in need of instant gratification. I’m fat, so give me a diet that will make me thin in 90 days or less. Oh, and if I can keep eating all the bacon I want while on it, all the better. Apple suggests to me that I need an iPad 2 to be happy, productive, entertained, and most importantly cool. After all, if I don’t have an iPad, I don’t have an iPad. Can’t stop smoking? Forget willpower and determination, we have a pill now you can take to fix that. War in Afghanistan? Yeah, yeah. What about the fact that Weiner guy, who I had never heard of and didn’t care about until last week, still hasn’t resigned. I mean, he texted a picture of his junk and then lied about it when Fox News flashed it before the world! And, OMG! Why doesn’t Lebron James care that people rooted against him in the NBA finals (probably because he gets paid $19.2 million a year for the next five years to dribble a silly ball down a wood floor for six months out of the year regardless of whether his team wins or loses)?
I refuse to believe that Americans are like what our media suggests we are like to the rest of the world. I don’t believe Americans, deep down, truly care about pictures of a bulging boxer short on Twitter, an iPad, or the latest quick-fix pharmaceutical. I believe most Americans care about Americans, and this hypothesis was proven correct by the army of volunteers in Joplin this past weekend. They came from near and far to help complete strangers, most of whom they will never even know their name or see. This occurred before this past weekend, continued today, will continue tomorrow, and will continue each day for a while to come. This is the America I choose to know. It’s the “many wonderful people” helping other people out.
It is easy to think that we have a lot going wrong in our lives. The economy is down, the jobs are unsecured, the politicians keep playing games and bickering pettily amongst themselves. You may have had a bad day at work. You may have had a fight with your spouse. You may be injured and in pain, harmed by someone else. These are legitimate concerns and complaints. But, it is also important to keep an eye on the big picture as Janis has: in the face of our trials and tribulations, we are alive and we have many wonderful people there to help us through the difficult times.
Disclaimer: The views of the author are his own. Nothing in this blog post should be construed to provide any legal advice to any specific individual. Readers may believe that the true identity of “Janis” has been concealed to protect her privacy. This is not true. The author is calling this woman Janis for two reasons: 1) it provides for a clever pun in the author’s opinion for the title of this post, and 2) the author has had Me and Bobby McGee stuck in his head since last Wednesday. This is most unfortunate, but the author is reminded to practice what he preaches and put things into perspective. If this woman’s name really is Janis, the author apologizes for his horrible luck and would remind any readers that similarities to real names are purely coincidental. The author legitimately does not care about Anthony Weiner’s wiener. He does care, however, if you are injured and need help.