More than a year ago that I had the privilege to answer the call of duty for a very special purpose. On May 22, 2011 Joplin, Missouri had been ravaged by an EF-5 tornado that wreaked destruction and death right through the middle of the city. Almost immediately hundreds of Police, Fire, EMT, Emergency Management and other resources began to flood into the effected area to provide assistance.
Only after the storm passed did the people of southwest Missouri realize just how devastating a hit they had sustained. Over $2 billion of damage was realized in the effected area that measured nearly five miles long and almost a mile wide at its worst. More costly was the 158 lives lost, and the nearly 1000 injured. More than 300 were arrested for pillaging the wreaked homes of victims, ready to steal what dignity the victims might find in the rubble.
In what can only be described as the “right of the people”, there were several instances where looters met a righteous judgment on the spot for their crimes. Although vigilanteism is not a desired pursuit of society these examples refresh the memory of the old “hue and cry” that society used to summon all able body citizens to pursue the criminal fleeing from the act. In one instance, a looter was found severely beaten and tied to a light pole. A sign attached to his chest clearly indicated his wrong actions. In another case a pick-up truck full of residents made an unexpected “delivery” to the police station. Again, a severely beaten, and tied up looter was unceremoniously released from the truck with a sign indicating the charges desired.
That was a year ago. Recently I was able to return to Joplin and view for myself just how that city had responded to this catastrophe. What I saw was remarkable, yet humbling all the same. I revisited the same streets that I patrolled during my service there. Perhaps the most astounding realization was the large areas that have yet to be rebuilt.
Federal and State disaster funds have flooded the city, and in some areas new life is abundantly clear. Many of the large box stores have rebuilt and are in full service today. In a sign of progress, many have upgraded safety of the structures, as well as improving upon the outward appearance. Traffic lights, street signs, and other city services have for the most part been restored. No longer does the effected area sit in solemn darkness at night.
Yet, even with the street lights there remain eerie shadows, dark spots cast upon a terrain still void of much of what was. That was perhaps the greatest surprise to me, in revisiting the area. From my time of service I knew that it would take years to rebuild in fullness, yet I had imagined that after a year there would be much more rebuilding evident on scene. Even the St. John’s Hospital was still standing, although in the process of being completely razed. In it’s place still remain the mobile surgical and medical trailers, a scene one would expect to see at a military base in Afghanistan, but not in a medium-sized city in America.
One can only sit and ponder, wondering how a person, a city, copes with such overwhelming and total loss. In the early weeks and months after the storm, there were powerful testimonies from some residents on their will to rebuild, to make a statement on the American dream and fortitude. There were also the saddening stories of some, who admitted that their strength to go on had been expended, to remain in an area so full of the memories of horror and death,. Looking back now I can only surmise that as time wore on, many chose to move on, to seek out their American dream elsewhere in a place that could provide stability immediately and not through the years of rebuilding.
Viewing the devastation once again reminded me of my years living in north Florida. Occasionally a hurricane would sweep in to measure out it’s destructive power. Thankfully, modern science provides greater warning of hurricanes so there was usually little if any loss of life. However, a hurricane’s force is spread out of miles and miles of area. The loss that could be seen was frightening enough, but the loss that was unseen could be said to have an even greater impact.
It has been said that you can break a person physically, but they usually heal and rebound. Yet, if you break a person spiritually, mentally, or emotionally, they may never come back. I now understand more fully how a life-long fisherman can forget his sea legs and take up work miles inland, after watching the oyster beds or fishing grounds be so devastated that many years are required before a semblance of their past can return. I suppose that some of the residents of Joplin feel the same way. Everything that they invested in their home, in their family, in Joplin, and for generations in some cases, was so immediately and totally shattered that there just isn’t enough left to start over in that broken place.
Joplin, Missouri is doing it’s best. The signs of recovery are evident throughout the effected area. There are ample signs and testimonies that show that the overall resolve of the city is to rebuild, to rebound, and to come back even better than before that tragic storm. In deed, as the pictures will show, the homes that are being built in place of homes lost, are incredible improvements. Homes made of the latest building materials, safer construction requirements, and homes that add a new light and life to this city. In deed, there are stark differences viewed across the street in some areas, where old homes meet new construction. In some ways it can be viewed that Joplin is getting an amazing “make-over”, but only after a very traumatic surgery.
Some businesses have reopened, and some more are starting to build. Each piece promises to bring a more magnificent puzzle together, than the Joplin that was known before May 21, 2011. The biggest challenge that remains for Joplin and it’s citizens is to keep their endurance alive as they sit down at the table and view the formation of this incredibly complex puzzle. The important thing for Joplin, and for all of us who care to consider, is to focus on the promise of the puzzle that is complete, and to somehow find the courage to look beyond the gaping hole in the center of the puzzle that still remains.
My hope and prayer is that Joplin will do just that. Persevere in the face of outrageous fortune, and complete the task in front of them. Remember Joplin in the next few years, and I’ll bet that you will see a masterpiece puzzle nearing it’s completion, producing a vision and landscape that not even the most progressive dreamers could have imagined before the storm. In that, Joplin will have succeeded in fulfilling one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments.