Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Return to Joplin

In 2010 and 2011 I had presentations in and around Joplin. I spent almost a week here in April of 2011 and really grew to like this town. Then, while driving back to Saint Louis from a race in Ohio on May 22nd of last year, my dad called me up to say that a massive tornado had hit Joplin. My thoughts instantly went to everyone effected although I didn't know just how big of a scale the damage was.

As morning came the light shined upon the carnage that the EF-5 tornado had left behind. I had covered three hurricanes, including Katrina and while in the damaged areas there was a real disconnect because I had not seen those places when they were intact, but seeing the pictures saddened me because I knew the places and had shopped at many of the places that had been leveled. Don't get me wrong, every disaster like this is a tragedy, but when one has been there and has an emotional connection with a place there is most certainly a stronger response.

How bad was the damage? I know a lot of my readers are international and I don't know if this story made world headlines, but this map that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might give you an idea:

It's been almost 8 months since that day and a couple days ago I came back to Joplin for a string of presentations. I didn't know how bad the area would be in terms of damage or remaining debris nor did I know what the attitude of people would be.

Yesterday, I took a drive through that red area of the map. What we saw on television looked like a bomb had gone off, but television doesn't give justice to the vast emptiness that now remains. Imagine it this way, see that red area on that map? Imagine if someone had taken a scalpel and cut out that section of the city leaving nothing behind. On one small hill, looking out, there's just barren land now where there used to be life.


Again, I'm sure that photo doesn't give justice to the sheer scope of the destruction. From where I took that photo it goes like that a considerable distance to the North and South and stretches for miles East to West. However, at the fringe of the damaged areas North and South are structures that got through it with minimal to no damage. At some points it is a fine line of simply one side of the road is gone, the other side remains.

Coming back I was worried about the atmosphere of the people, I mean I have no idea how a town can go through something like that and remain, well, remain positive. However, everyone here has a story and while there is still a hint of pain when talking about the places that are no more, or the injured, or how the once majestic park is now a barren plot of land, that pain quickly lifts once the story gets to the aftermath and the days after the storm. While down here I have heard story after story of how everyone banded together to help all those in need. From my presentations last year I always knew Joplin was a close knit town, but hearing these stories sent chills through my soul.

The rebuilding process is well underway and while some places are gone and will be lost to time, others have already been rebuilt and reopened. Some homes have already been rebuilt and someday, I'm sure, those pictures I've posted will be nothing more than a memory. As of now though, the high school remains in shambles and the hospital sits much like it did on May 23rd.

I'm just a passerby and can't say I am a regular in this town. However, everything I was expecting has been different. The size of the devastation is far beyond what any picture can show you unless you physically go into the heart of the area that is quite simply no longer there and take a moment, do a 360 degree turn, and realize that one year ago there was a city there. Despite this, yes, despite a tornado of historic significance and despite the devastation beyond imagination, life is moving forward. Construction crews are building and there is a major sense of unity that even I can pickup on. Originally I was going to call this post, "The Return of Joplin" but that would be wrong because with a community like this, Joplin never went anywhere.

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