Day 3: Devastation and Delight

Yesterday, after a disappointing free breakfast at the motel – am I just getting old? – we left Miami, OK around 10:30 a.m.  Twenty or so miles later, we stopped at the Welcome Center in Missouri to pick up some pamphlets, thinking maybe we’d stop to take in some local Missouri sights on the way to St. Louis.  I stayed in the car with the girls while Jessica ran in.  A long while later, Jessica runs back out and says that she’d talked with a man who offered to help her who happened to be from a local town called Joplin.  Joplin, Missouri, does that ring a bell?

Just a couple of months ago, Joplin, MO, was hit by a massive tornado.  The man at the Welcome Center knows the area well, and offered to tell Jessica which was the best path to take to see the damage inflicted by the tornado.  Jessica saw a learning opportunity for the girls – not necessarily schooling as much as life lesson – and accepted the offer.  The man then picked up a pamphlet with a small map on the back and drew little arrows with his ball-point pen to indicate the route we should take.  Once Jessica was back in the car, it didn’t take long for us to decide that this was more important than visiting a museum or visiting some interesting caverns (way out of our price-range, as it turned out).  And so we explained what was about to happen to the girls while we drove the few miles to the exit where we were to start our personalized tour.

No amount of explanation could have prepared us, any of us, for the devastation that we saw.  Sure, we saw some images in the news, but they are nothing like seeing the real thing.  At first, we drove down a charming, winding road flanked by green grass and trees.  Then a few houses dotted the side of the road, and we entered a completely normal residential area.  And then everything changed.  It was like a scene from an apocalyptic movie.  On the left side of the road, nothing noteworthy.  But on the right, it was carnage.  Half of the houses we saw were moderately to greatly damaged, roofs caved in or gone, and something like an empty field in the background.  It wasn’t until we followed another arrow or two that we saw the true devastation of the town.  That empty field looked more like a battlefield: most of the houses were razed to the ground.  Only the occasional partial house was left, with words spray-painted on whatever remnant of wall there was, like “Gas Off” and “We’re All OK” which, instead of being the joyful testimony of lives spared, to me attested more to the fact that so many others weren’t “OK.”  All that was left of one house was its chimney.  There were heaps of debris, as big as a house, or two houses, sometimes sorted by material-type like the demolishers are doing to our neighborhood school – only their demolition was planned.  Apparently the twister was 3/4 mile wide and made a 6 mile long path.  When the tornado warning sounded, the local hospital had 24 minutes before the beast slammed into it.  Windows blown in, walls crumbling, patients dragged outside by the wind, everyone bloody, and back-up generators damaged so that the lights went out and stayed out.

I was shocked to see how much debris was still present on site, and that volunteer clean-up crews were still gathering pieces of debris by the armful as we drove by.  I thought that after 2 months, it would all look ruggedly clean.  It goes to show just how massive the destruction was.  One third of the town, from what I gather.  And yet, there were signs of new life.  The bare trees, sentinels watching over the ravaged landscape, stripped of leaves and all but the largest of their branches, are sprouting new leaves – a strange sight, as the leaves have nowhere else to grow but right on the tree trunk itself.  And construction has started in spots, the empty shells of new houses erected, future walls, future homes.  Over 115 dead.  But I haven’t seen a number for how many people are now homeless, jobless, widowed, orphaned.  In the end, no one in Joplin was spared.  Everyone has been hit and rattled to the core.  It was a moving experience for me to drive through the ravaged town of Joplin, to consider the deep wounds not only of the landscape but especially of the people of Joplin.  I will never hear of another tornado strike with apathy again.  If your church is looking for a way to make a difference this summer, or this fall, consider helping out in Joplin.

If you are interested in reading more about the tornado that hit Joplin, the New York Times has a good one here.  I don’t have any pictures to offer, but there are plenty online if you do a simple search.

I don’t have a good segue to lead into the rest of the day.  After searching in vain for a rest area or some sort of park that would work for lunch, we gave up, exited and parked in a Taco Bell parking lot, under a tree, with a grassy area just beyond the curb.  It wasn’t too hot in the shade, and it was only after Evangeline freaked out over her fear of ants and we explained to her that fire ants don’t live this far North, that I realized I could take my shoes off.  And so I did, and enjoyed the feel of the soft green grass under foot.  The grass up North is not the same as the grass in Houston or in Florida, where my grandparents lived and where Jessica grew up.  Northern grass (I’m sure it has a better real name) is so soft that it’s a real delight to sink your toes into – especially compared to St. Augustine grass!

In the evening, we finally arrived at our friends’ house, Don and Becky Long, just North of St. Louis, just across the Mississippi in Illinois.  We did stop for Krispy Kreme doughnuts right before arriving.  Having missed our chance in Dallas, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.  And just as we walked into the store, the “HOT” sign came on and we got ours right off the moving contraption – hot, soft, and melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness!

We then spent a wonderful evening with our old friends, Don and Becky, reminiscing and catching up on all that has and is going on in our lives.  It is a blessing to reconnect with friends and feel like nothing in the relationship has changed, that even after nine years you can pick things up right where they left off.  It was a beautiful night that none of us wanted to have end, but that we finally cut off at 3:00 a.m. so that we’d get at least a few hours of sleep.

For the girls it was an evening of hard playing, discovering the joys of an unfinished basement used as a giant playroom, and observing, giggling over and catching frogs.  We noticed a distinct lack of mosquitoes, to which our friends replied that it was probably because of all the tree frogs they had.  The frog chorus was loud and lasted a good long while.  Jessica and I think we might just have to bring some back to Houston with us.  We’d rather have an abundance of frogs over mosquitoes any day!

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