Saturday, May 24, 2014


We arrived on Friday night, Memorial Day weekend, driving to the home of the one aunt and uncle who had not been in the path of the tornado.  The weakening tornado had been just a few miles to the south but still close enough to leave pieces of debris in their yard.   From their house, we drove into Joplin.  Heading west, our first view of the damage in the city was at the intersection of a once bustling commercial area and a four lane highway.  There is a slight rise in the road just before the traffic light.  As far as we could see to the west, it was black, as if we had left a campground and climbed up a hill, looking down on the campground where most of the fires had been doused and the only glimmer was from banked ashes at a few of the campsites or the glow of a flashlight in the hand of the last one turning in for the night.  You could hardly speak.  In the dark, there appeared to be no shopping centers, neighborhoods, nothing.  For miles.
Neighborhood around St. John's Hospital.  Hospital on the far left.  Electrical plant to the right of hospital.  
In the light of morning, as we drove back into town through a security checkpoint, my heart ached for our aunts and uncles and my husband's parents and the tremendous loss they were processing. Thankfully, no one had been injured in our family.  A large part of their hometown, the part central to their growing up days, gone, almost unrecognizable.  At certain points, a maze, as every natural and man made landmark was blown away or partially hanging on, except for the concrete streets still attached to the earth.

Tornadoes have always been one of my biggest fears. You really can not imagine such a scene until you are there. I have not written about the experience because there was not enough time between the words and the world that stopped on that Sunday afternoon.  The worse pictures I took from inside the car.  Still, I felt intrusive, capturing somebody's tragedy.                     

A green jacket and a black coat wrapped around trees.
Going back and looking at my pictures, I remember a house where people perished.  In thirty-eight minutes, the twenty-two mile long tornado had taken 161 lives*.  When we arrived on Friday, there were still people missing.  Clothing was caught in the limbs of bare trees.  Any spot of water might reveal a lost person.  I had a fear of seeing something but also the thought that it would help a family. Horrible things happened.  A baby was pulled from its mother's arms.   The tornado pulled a high school senior from his car as he raced to get home. He and his father were returning from the graduation ceremony. His body was found on Saturday.

Five days out, the main storm streets had been partially cleared.  6, 954 homes** were destroyed along with churches, schools, shopping centers, large and small businesses and the hospital.  An iron cross still stood straight next to an almost demolished St. Mary's Church and school. Mangled cars littered every scene, pitched and tossed at odd angles which would speak volumes about the safety of any vehicle during such a storm.
Convenience store where people took cover in the cooler and lived.

National Guard Hummers blocked off the very worse areas.  The law enforcement presence was huge, joined with local, statewide, and assistance from states and cities from around the country.  Insurance companies, non-profit organizations and church vans were set up in the parking lots of areas in town not affected by the storm, cooking food and taking donations.  Semi trucks full of food, water and clothing seemed to be on every other corner, out of the zone.  Additional satellite tents were within the zone.  Back-hoes were everywhere.  On through streets that were open, cars lined both sides as city officials and utility workers walked around taking care of business in their dayglo vests and hard hats.

In this part of town, there was no power although company trucks were everywhere.  Only daylight through the window.  One room was missing a part of the roof.  And yet, in another room lifetime treasures were in pristine condition as we worked to pack away the possessions before the home was declared unsafe.  We were lucky.  There were possessions to pack.   It was strange to walk in one part of the house where everything looked normal except for knowing it had been lifted and ever so slightly put back down.

Any room with a broken window or windows looked as if someone had stood in the middle of the room, spraying the walls and surfaces with sporadic coats of a brown substance like partially dried paper mache - everything the tornado had churned up and pulverized.  In some places, shattered glass, as fine as sand, could be shaken out of belongings just like sand from a blanket at the beach.

Saturday afternoon I took a break.  I stepped out back.  The air smelled different, all the broken trees and the exhaust from saws.  We are not used to seeing destruction of this magnitude.  I don't know how first responders and others, who work in these areas for weeks following such a disaster, are able to handle the constant immediacy of need.  It is just a small part of my history, very small when compared to the thousands who survived it.  But still closer than I ever want to be again.

My precious area
I looked down at the ground littered with paper, junk, pieces of wood.  Everything coated in the brown muck. A picture caught my eye.  Amazingly, a small black and white picture with the old fashioned decorative border was still intact.  I kept looking.  Glass was everywhere.  Of course, I knew to watch every every step in order to avoid a nail or another sharp object.  On my first hunt, I didn't even take gloves.  The collection grew as I carried it caught up in my t-shirt like I was harvesting wild berries.  Almost as soon as I first leaned over to pick up a piece, my mind hit on the term "Precious."  I was gathering precious pieces of  lives upended.

The precious pieces became almost sacred to me.  How would I feel if everything I own had been blown away?  Especially the pictures.  I wanted to gather up even the small bits.  A picture with a family but only one with half a face.  A cheer team from the 1970's.  The only intact photo was the older one.

I picked up half of a five dollar bill, wondering if the storm had ripped it in half, so neatly.  A child's plastic ring, possibly a favor from a birthday party.  Each item had been a possession.  A "No-Fail" chocolate chip recipe cut from a Blue Bonnet Margarine package.  A puzzle piece - the State of New Mexico.  A torn page from a personalized child's story book.  "Y le dijeron sus siervos: Que es esto que has hecho? " 2 Samuel 2:21, the page ripped from the Bible and folded up in the storm.  Probably from an attic, a twenty year old canceled check for a car payment on a '93 Lincoln.  The baby blue one inch square tile. One and a half ducks marching across a shard of pottery looking for coffee.  How far did these pieces travel?  If these are the pieces, what about the kitchen and the attic and the child's room?  Hard questions. That is why they are precious to me.  Someone should save them away, to mark the place and the time.  Souvenirs.

The last piece I picked up from the pile of a house that had been finished off by a bulldozer.  This was another visit. Weeks or months later, it doesn't matter.  But the white piece of curled wrought iron was picked up as a token of the place - the house Burt remembers as a child.  The house his grandparents built and owned while their daughters were young.  Pictures of two sisters posing, in front of the stone fireplace, wearing beautiful, new formals.  Dances, parties, weddings.  A grandson playing in the basement.  A home full of memories.
Only one story.

Much of what I found was unrecognizable - a mere fragment.  I didn't keep those pieces.  The picture pieces I found, I sent to a clearing house in Joplin which was posting lost pictures.  Heirloom family pictures.  Recent pictures. Wedding pictures.  Graduation.  New house pictures.  Sports pictures.  Cemetery pictures.  Disney pictures. Lake pictures.  Baby pictures.  Every part of life caught for one second of preservation.

Just pieces.  Precious pieces that speak of a place that existed on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011.   Missouri has the reputation as the "Show Me" State.  I think the city of Joplin has turned it around.  Ever since the disaster, people have worked to rebuild the city in new ways and different areas.  Yesterday, The Resilience Butterfly Garden and Overlook was opened at Cunningham Park - at the same time the tornado occurred three years ago.   The day after the tornado, the people of Joplin rolled up their sleeves and said "We'll show them!"  We'll rebuild - piece by piece.

Rangeline Road

*Beloved family pet, Grady


No comments:

Post a Comment