Joplin: The Anniversary of a Tragedy Close to Home

Rubble at Joplin

Tragedy is a curious thing. It strikes when and where it will. Wily weather, despite our best efforts to predict and prepare for it, continues to escape our control and routinely leaves us reeling, unable to fathom the how or why, trying to pick up where we left off, finding it gone forever.

Only a year ago—a year ago and a few days, Joplin, a small town in Missouri, was ravaged by the fearsome (250 mph) winds of an EF5 Tornado.
My first reactions to the phone-calls, emails and in-person inquiries I got from my European friends were somewhere along the lines of the following: Joplin is a few hours drive from my hometown. No, not really close at all. No, I don’t have any family or close friends there.
I had no desire to talk about Joplin and even less desire to think about it. Because even though it wasn’t close to home, it was far too close to home: tornados are a common occurrence in central Missouri. As a child the sound of the warning sirens shrieking throughout the city was enough to make me rush to the basement and huddle under a scratchy Afghan until I was sure it was safe to come out.
But Joplin was everywhere, even in Spain, and I try as I might to avoid the topic, I caught wind of the numbers and began to digest the chronicle in images of how weather can destroy a place. In Joplin, the tornado destroyed more than 7,000 houses, killed more than 160 people and injured many more.
So when I had the chance to see Joplin the following August on the way to Arizona, my feelings were somewhat divided.
Did I need to see this?
Perhaps.

Roadside in Joplin

Would it make me cry? 

Probably.

When I set foot in Joplin, more than two months have passed since the tornado left a mile-wide scar on the face of this small midwestern city. Even so, like drops of oil in water, the destruction seems to be somehow suspended in the oppressive heat. It’s mid-day, but there are no construction noises, none of the volunteers cleaning up rubble that have smiled up at me in this summer’s newspaper articles. Merciless sunlight illuminates piles of brick and wood—former homes. Amputated trees are everywhere, the arms that once reached for the sky ripped off, thrown heavenward and then unceremoniously dropped back to earth when the winds finally ceased.
People are understandably scarce in this part of the city. Even so, I can’t help but wonder about my fellow Missourians, that like it or not, showed up in photos across the globe. Children in brightly colored jackets with mismatched pajama bottoms being carried to safety in the arms of strangers. So many caught unawares, helpless to avoid the cameras’ unforgiving lenses. Images of a young couple searching for (and finding) a beloved dog come to mind. There are pictures of neighbors pulling the living and those gone forever out from under ruins of houses and cars strewn about by a capricious storm. These are people on the receiving end of a twisted version of fifteen minutes of fame.
What must it be like to have your loved ones, your life’s work, or your life, point blank, stolen away by a force of nature? Is there any comfort to be found in that the loss is far beyond your sphere of influence, out of your control? Or is it too easy to get mired down in the details, the “ifs” and “buts” that eventually come out to play with victims’ peace of mind?
I find I have no answers, or words of advice, only eyes that rain regret for lives lost and changed forever. The wind whistles in my ear and does its best to dry my tears. Today it’s gentle; warm even, with none of the ferocity of that day in May. 


And I am grateful. Not for tragedies and the bad things that will always happen, but for the days of lightly falling snowflakes, blazing sun, and everything between.
To get a good picture of the state of Joplin the day I visited, I recommend the following video at LaVanguardia.com:

Copyright 2010-2012 Chris Ciolli. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce texts or images without written consent. First published in the Tipton Times unless otherwise noted.

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