It was Sunday night and my wife and I were sitting in our screened-in porch with our kids, watching the storm. My son, Nick, was collecting hail to see if it tasted like ice. But any feeling that this was an ordinary storm would soon melt away. I received a text from my good friend John Walsh, who lives about five minutes away, telling me that a tornado touched down in his neighborhood, taking out a few trees. But still, at that moment, I had no reason to believe that this storm would prove catastrophic.
At 5:41 p.m. on May 22, the eighth-deadliest tornado in U.S. history hit my hometown of Joplin, Missouri. Stretching almost a mile wide and running 13 miles long, it completely destroyed everything in its path. Tragically, 141 people lost their lives. I was very lucky because neither my family nor home were physically damaged in any way, but most of our church was blown away. Many of my friends lost everything. People who were on the ground when the tornado touched down say they waited a breathless 40 seconds for the destruction to subside. Forty seconds changed so much here in Joplin.
The media coverage of the loss of people and property has provided powerful images, but frankly doesn’t do it justice. Unless you are here to see the swath of destruction, you can’t even begin to understand what that storm did to our town. Imagine standing on a street corner that you have been to over a hundred times and not being able to recognize anything you see, or driving to a spot where good friends used to live and not being able to find their home because it isn’t there anymore, and there are no landmarks or street signs to guide your way.
My good friend and pastor, Aaron Brown of St. Paul’s Church, said it best last Sunday when he told our church family that Jesus never said there wouldn’t be pain and tragedy in our lives. He never said that it was going to be easy. He did, however, say that He would always be there to guide us and carry us when things get tough. He was there when Will Norton was being tossed around in a car. He heard Will praying out loud as his father watched him get sucked out of the car, only to be found dead a few days later at the bottom of a nearby pond. He was also there for my friends, the Vasquez family, who couldn’t make it inside to take cover. He was watching as Frank, the father, rode it out in his car (which absolutely should have been destroyed) while his wife and daughter held on to the security bars on their front door, as the house and front porch disappeared around them.
I can’t begin to tell you how many tears we’ve cried since that Sunday. I’ve cried with friends as we dug through piles of debris looking for even one family photo. I cried with an elderly lady after we cut a tree off of her house when she didn’t have anyone else to help her. A group of us cleaned up my new friend David’s house and we all prayed and cried together, in the middle of the rubble, for his mother, who was killed sitting next to him when the tornado hit. And I cried by myself in the middle of the street when a family of four pulled up in a truck with chainsaws to help, having driven all the way from Kansas City.
On the positive side, I have witnessed some incredible acts of kindness. I watched as people who were waiting in a food line for over an hour left their place to aid a volunteer who needed help carrying bottled water. Children emptied their piggy banks, and adults opened their homes to those that didn’t have one anymore. Probably the best part of it all was working alongside people from all over the country – people who got into their car and drove to our small town to help complete strangers.
Even though we are trying to get back to a normal pace of life, we are still numb from the tornado. Replacing buildings and vehicles will be easy, but replacing the friends and family we lost, or the memories that were blown away, will be harder. The one thing I know for sure after seeing this town in action is that the people of Joplin are very capable of rebuilding what was lost and coming back bigger and better. This is a town of family and friends who are strongly anchored in faith and with that anything is possible.
One piece of advice I have for anyone reading this blog is to get involved in your town. If you do not make it a habit to volunteer where you live, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life. There is NOTHING like the feeling you get from helping someone less fortunate than you. In the end, I promise that you’ll be the one who benefits.
If you want to get involved and help Joplin, please consider the following ways:
- Text JOPLIN to 864833 from your mobile device to make a $10 donation to the Heart of Missouri United Way
- To make a donation by phone, please call the Heart of Missouri United Way at 573-443-4523
- Donate online
- American Red Cross
- St. Louis United Way
- Stay informed and spread the message on Facebook at Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery
- Stay informed and spread the message on Twitter
- Volunteer by calling 417-625-3543 or registering online
Tornado Statistics (as of 6/7/11):
- 141 fatalities, 1,150 injuries
- Severely damaged or destroyed more than 400 Joplin businesses, affecting up to 4,500 workers
- Estimated loss of over 8,000 housing units (homes and apartments)
- Destroyed 25-30% of the city
- Insured losses are expected to be between $1-3 billion
- Almost 7,000 volunteers on any given day