Joplin Tornado 5 years past: The birth of Joplin Proud, Joplin Strong

May 22, 2016

I was born in the shadow of World War II and Korea.  Came of age as Vietnam raged.  Of stories of hell past and present.  Yet no imaginary image, no matter how terrible, could have prepared me for May 22, 2011.

Growing up in southern Kansas, tornadoes were a part of life.  I had seen them dust up the fields, watched in person as McConnell Air Force Base took a direct hit in 1991, thanked God for sparing my parents when one went over the farm house years later and again for protecting friends in the path of the Iris Road storm in 2008.

And when our terror descended from the sky that Sunday afternoon five years ago, I was recovering from surgery with movement restricted from chair to bed, gauze packed and medication full. At the one time I was needed most, I was absolutely worthless.  I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t dig, I couldn’t do a damn thing to help anyone.  Pray yes, but help no.

As the images of the devastation came in the next morning my anger at being so useless grew.  And grew and grew and grew, until that afternoon the internal voice said, “Hey idiot, yeh you. You’re a writer, write something”.  And so I did. Below are excerpts from my feeble attempt to “do something” during that time.  From the Globe, May 25, 2011:

“….While it is already in the history books as one of the deadliest tornadoes in Missouri history, I feel (and I know) that it will also be written in those history books as our finest hour.

An hour when we, along with our surrounding area neighbors, did not falter, did not hesitate. An hour that while destruction was still being wreaked on Range Line, survivors were already assisting victims on Maiden Lane. An hour that lasted long past the setting sun and well into its rising the morning next. An hour that saw a small, Midwestern community show the world the very best of its best: its people.

We give a heartfelt, collective thank you to all who answered the call within those first critical hours and who continue on without concern for self as they render their assistance to whomever and wherever needed.

Our thoughts and prayers go to all the victims and their families, (their loss unimaginable to those of us spared). And while the devastation and pain cannot be ignored, we cannot be blind to the many accounts of the miracles of life now arising from the piles of hell.

We wish we could say, fear not, we’ve overcome worse. We can’t. For there has been no worse. But neither should we fear we shall not overcome. We will. For that there is no doubt.

And while the answers will be few and the questions many for the coming days, weeks and months there is one thing that is certain: Come this next Sunday evening, the satellite trucks will be gone, the anchors will have flown back to their chairs on the coast, and the nation’s attention will have shifted on to the next catastrophe of the moment.

Come this next Sunday evening, we will still be here.  We, you, me, us, they, them, I … all the words that make “us”, “us” and Joplin the community she is.

We will be doing for our family, our friends and our neighbors what we have always done: taking care of each other from the strength found within ourselves.”

I will never know if those meager words helped anyone during those darkest of days, but I do know one thing certain: this town took a punch to the gut no town should ever have to take.  It could have lay down, it could have given up, but instead it found more strength within itself over these past five years than anyone, anywhere could have ever imagined.

And it is in that strength, in that “we, you, me, us, they, them”, that Joplin Proud – Joplin Strong was born and will forever live.

God be with the victims, their families and this town, “our town”, that means so much to each and every one of us.

PUBLISHER’s NOTE:  A version of this column first appeared in the Sunday, May 22, 2016 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

Sometime during the immediate aftermath, Kelly Burley of NPR member station KOSU in Stillwater called and asked if I would record an audio version of the original Deep Within column.  My first inclination was to decline, it wasn’t about me.  In the end, he convinced me those words might help someone, somewhere even if just a small amount.  That audio essay can be by clicking this link:  Deep Within

If the link doesn’t load it can be found in the archives at this link:  Drawing Deep from Within: Audio Essay



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