I Will Remember Joplin- Media Unit
Nearly two and a half months ago news channels and front page headlines were peppered with images of the May 22nd F-5 tornado that ripped through the Missouri township of Joplin. The twister brought violent 200 plus mile per hour winds and a fury the residents could not prepare for. The news stories died in early June and nearly 54 days later, we felt the need to investigate ourselves. It was a Saturday morning on Day 38 and we were treated to a rest day in Clinton, Missouri. My Media Team and I felt the day long trip south was a necessary expedition to burn our rest day for. This would be our first independent field trip away from the riders and SAG team. It was an opportunity that could not be missed. On our way we also decided to visit the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Missouri.
It was an hour and a half drive down to Springfield through the rolling foothills that led up to the Ozark Mountains. The state of Missouri was the boyhood home of American author Mark Twain. That day I felt like Twain, a longtime journalist digging for stories deep in the heartland. Or even his iconic character Huckleberry Finn, traveling south along the mighty Mississippi, aboard a makeshift raft, only we had ‘The Minnow’. Like Huck, what began as an adventure, we discovered something more profound and cathartic. Much of the landscape is idyllic countryside, as if the American frontier was preserved in the rivers, forests and grasslands of rural Missouri. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers provide much needed irrigation to the lands that keep the ‘Show-Me State’ lush and green. An interesting note, I never saw so much ‘road kill’ in my life as I have seen in Missouri. Everything from deer, to rodents, to birds, something was lying on the side the road. It speaks to the fertility of the Missouri countryside, where animals and people still live side by side.
Act II introduced a tertiary character on the ride- the weather. Each day is a new challenge and pushes all of us to a new limit of our abilities. We arrived in Springfield with the morning humidity making a haze off the sunlight. Humidity proved to be a whole new animal out here. Merely walking around outside makes you feel wet and moist all over your body in a matter of minutes, like being in a steam room all day. We entered the cemetery to find our cameras were fogged up from the night before due to the humidity, registering at 77% that day. After some quick drying and cleaning we spent some time perusing the grounds taking photos and video of the veterans’ headstones. To my surprise there were several markers of veterans dating back to the American Civil War.
We set course for Joplin another hour and half east of Springfield. Among the team our apprehension rose as The Minnow inched closer on the map to Joplin. Along the road we saw several electronic board signs directing ‘Relief Workers’ to their respective exits. Several emotions swirled through me- uneasiness, uncertainty, excitement, curiosity. The Minnow arrived in downtown Joplin just past noon. To our surprise, Joplin is a large township with a population of 50,000. All of the downtown was intact; in fact it was quite a bustling center. There were people and cars covering many of the outlet malls and stores. It looked like there were more people out and about here than in Springfield, which was three times the population of Joplin. I figured we were not in the right spot, so I set course for the hospital. I remembered the picture I saw of it online during the damage coverage months before.
The Minnow headed southwest along Main Street. Our approach will always stick with me when I'll tell stories about my experience. We noticed subtle indications of damages like sign posts missing letters and bent flag poles. Then appeared closed buildings, missing roof tops, broken trees and torn up yards...then it was night and day. The Minnow crested a hill and we found the hospital. It was right in the middle of the swath of destruction. Commercial buildings and residential homes were completely destroyed. The only thing that remained of residential homes was the foundations. In most cases only toilets and fireplaces remained. Trees were debarked and several still had pieces of metal wrapped around it like a bowtie- a grim display of nature’s violent artwork. It was as if the finger of God scrapped a three quarter mile wide and ten mile long section of south Joplin right off the Earth.
We took our cameras out and walked around the damage path. Debris littered the ground as far as the eye could see. I read the residents's stories in their things and objects. Their livelihoods were scattered in the wind- a young family, an elderly couple, children who liked Winnie the Pooh, a high school baseball star. One of the more emotional moments was when Austin earthed out a stuffed Tigger toy from the dirt embedded since the tornado struck. Most of the area still looked as if the twister stopped spinning yesterday. We found some relief workers to speak to and discovered they were actually from Minnesota and part of the AmeriCorps volunteers. In our discussion with them it appeared there was no cohesive or organized body coordinating the clean up. There was no visible National Guard or FEMA presence. In fact, there was hardly anyone cleaning up debris at all. Only scattered pockets of volunteers, many from out-of-town non-profits and faith-based organizations.
Residents with damaged homes who could not afford to clean up or rebuild simply salvaged what they could and abandoned the area. Near the damage path there were several ‘Relief Stations’ that provided water and food. Some of the workers resided in RV trailers and tents. However, those stations were mostly empty, with only one or two people there. The seven-story St. John’s Regional Medical Center was abandoned and it did not look like there was any clean up or rebuilding effort for it. All of its windows were blown out and even some of the concrete looked ripped off from the steel frame of the structure. Joplin High School was annihilated, no clean up or rebuilding effort underway for it. A heart aching scene was the high school sign, where the ‘J’, ‘L’, ‘I’, ‘N’ letters were ripped off and someone duct tapped an ‘H’ and ‘E’ to the remaining letters to spell “H-O-P-E” High School. Homes were sprayed painted with various clauses of “We’re Okay”. We drove on retreating to the air conditioning of the Minnow as the outside temperature read 99 degrees, but it felt like 109. Several cars were crushed, but who knows how far they were thrown in the 200+ mile per hour winds. Several of those crushed cars were lodged in homes. I started thinking about all the people and cars we saw at the malls on the way in. Apparently those malls were now temporary homes for many from the damage swath. The only rebuilt structures were the commercial buildings like Walgreens and Home Depot, in the form of a large tent.
After spending two hours in the destruction path, driving through it and walking around, we set course for Clinton. The two hour ride back gave me a lot of time to ruminate on what I just witnessed. It is cliché to say it was hard to comprehend, but it was definitely was. The force and fury of the storm, its violence and fury were unbelievable. More persistent was the lack of clean up and response. Our lenses captured for all time the lingering devastation 54 days later, but our emotions could not be captured. The image that sticks with me the most was the American flags dotted throughout the damaged area. Was it the resident’s display of solidarity? I do not have answer for you. To me it illustrated that America forgot about Joplin and what happened here. It made me rethink was patriotism means and what being an American means. More uncertainty for the people here in even more uncertain times. What these people lost in possessions dwarfs in comparison to their emotions of loss. In total 158 people lost their lives.
This year, much of the Heartland was devastated by natural disasters- click here. The third character of America is hurting. I was unsettled by what I saw and felt there as the Minnow was a quiet ride for all of us back to Clinton. All I can say for myself from that experience is- I will remember Joplin.
The Journey is the Reward and To the Limit,