It was the toys. That’s what got me. Everywhere you looked you could see traces of where a family once played, where a kid would be playing Rock Band on his/her PS3, where neighbors would gather for barbecue and games played in cul-de-sacs. You could see dinner tables still standing where a supper was eaten just a few hours earlier. Remnants of families’ lives scattered here and there.
As I drove to Joplin with my good friend and co-worker Kris Hagemeier, we talked of memories of that city, the city where he and I went to college. It was in Joplin that I met my closest friends, the men and women that I still call my brothers and sisters today. It was in Joplin that I discovered what true love looked like and then married her. It was in Joplin that I began to understand my place in this world. It was there that I discovered who I was.
My heart raced and my stomach grew queasy the closer we got. I knew we were within shouting distance of the damage when I began to see signs on Highway 44 directing volunteers where to go. So that’s where we headed.
As we pulled up to College Heights Christian Church to drop off our first load of supplies there was no loss in sight. We met up with Chris Roberts, editor of the Joplin Business Journal and a close friend. He had agreed to show us the worst hit areas so that we could begin to formulate a game plan for our work groups coming later.
We began our trip into what I can only describe as hell. It started slowly. Some roof damage here, siding ripped off there, then utter destruction. Rangeline Road past 15th Street was obliterated. My heart broke looking over the city that had given me so much and home to so many that we love. Burger King, where my friend Kris’s wife had worked in college, was crushed. The primary colors of a once bustling playground were the only marker of what it was.
Building after building was more demolished than the next. I thought we were looking at the worst of it.
I was wrong.
We came up to 20th Street and on up to 26th. I was and am at a loss for words at what I saw. It was the end of all things. Everything was flattened and thrown about. Cars looked as if a giant toddler had come through and tossed them like some plaything, trees stripped of bark and broken in half. Entire root systems of giant oaks and pines were thrown here and there, some on cars and homes, others in the streets. Giant piles of rubble where homes once stood were markers of death and the mayhem that people walked out of. You could see for miles in any direction you looked.
Streets that were once clearly marked and avenues to the daily comings and goings of life, were now small alley ways for workers searching for people lost.
The smells were overwhelming. There was the sweet stench of rotting food and produce, the smell of burning trash, wafts of gasoline and diesel floated about and then the pleasant aroma of pine would burst through for a split second. I couldn’t identify what some of the smells were and honestly, my mind did not want to travel there. The horrors that waited were too much for anyone.
We saw people standing and looking at their homes, homes that are now shadows of what once was. We saw work crews cleaning yards, pilling debris and doing what they can to help the process of rebuilding. We looked at one gentleman who was sitting on the porch of his fallen house. He sat in a camping chair reading his book, legs crossed as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Another man was walking slowly through his yard, zigzagging through some sort of path. He reached down and picked up some sort of scrap and heaved it with such desperation that his image is still etched in my mind. The look of despair on his face haunts me. I can only fathom his loss.
The thing that shocks me the most is how anyone survived. To see what that tornado did, the damage sustained, and to see that people walked away from that is utterly unbelievable. It is a testament to humanity’s ability to survive even under the most extreme conditions.
As we continued through the ravaged city, our eyes began to adjust to other things in the rubble as well — people. Not how you might think though. These were men and women, young and old wearing yellow vests and orange shirts doing what they can to restore Joplin. Work crews. People from out of town and people native to the city all working in unison to clean up the destruction, large international groups and people who had driven in on their own coming together to make a difference, entire families in their yards systematically putting the trash into separate piles to be gathered and burned later.
It was hope.
Right in the middle of death and chaos and destruction was hope. You could see it in the sweat and grimace of every worker, it was there in the effort of all the men and women clearing the streets, it was there in the volunteers handing out free food and supplies to those who lost homes and loved ones.
Even in the faces of those that now have nothing was a determination buried deep within during times of comfort. It had risen to the surface to meet this deadly disaster and more importantly to overcome this deadly disaster. In that determination I saw the city that helped shape who I am today.
As I said goodbye to my friend Chris, I wished him luck and let him know that we would be back soon. We got in the van and began our drive home. I had learned many things from my time in Joplin. Hope and despair often live side by side, but hope will prevail. Loving your neighbor is more than just a good idea to strive for, it is a real and tangible thing, something to behold when you see it in action. I saw people of different faiths and no particular faith at all working with each other to the same goal. I saw nature at its worst, and humanity at its best.
In the coming weeks, I will share stories of triumph and struggle from people at the center of this fatal storm. My hope and prayer is that we all draw strength from these stories. That we can all learn to love our families a little bit harder and take a little more time to tell someone, “I love you."