After the winds that broke a city and the storm that claimed the lives of so many, utter devastation was left in the wake of a tornado nearly a mile wide. Yet, like the mythical Phoenix, something had risen from beneath the splintered wood and scattered belongings. Walking around the shattered homes and cars spray-painted with X’s you can see this Phoenix. You can see it in the eyes of rescue workers, the makeshift rest-stops giving away free food, the trucks of relief workers driving around offering repast, and the cases of water, work gloves, and trash bags left on every neighborhood corner for anyone willing to pitch in. This Phoenix, the indomitable human spirit, exists in the people of Joplin through their anguish and time of great sorrow. This human spirit bonds strangers together to help sift through the rubble to try and find anything to link them back to a time just over a week ago before everything changed.
My hat goes off to the Kansas City Chiefs for donating money to the relief efforts, and using Arrowhead as a base for collecting supplies and donations for those affected. Affected isn’t the right word though. These people were not “affected” by a “destructive storm.” I have been milling over in my head the past three days now what terminology can accurately depict what I saw when a group of us went up Wednesday and I still cannot describe what I experienced.
So I will start at the beginning.
I received a telephone call Tuesday asking if I would like to join a group of people from Tulsa to go up to Joplin to help with relief efforts. I had worked 24 hours straight on Sunday/Monday, and being an hourly employee I had time to cut anyway. I had heard that the deadliest tornado in 60 years had just gone through that area and figured maybe me and my girlfriend could help out. What I did not realize was that I was about to embark on a trip that I can only liken to the journey to find Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” I know that I can be overly emphatic at times, and quite facetious, but this is no joke. After we arrived each stop led us further into the wake until we finally sat atop the center of the tornado’s path looking outward on a mile wide strip torn straight through a prosperous city.
We all met and made a convoy up I-44, going East towards Joplin, instead of West towards OKC where another tornado had just gone through. We arrived at a central meeting place where we signed in and filled out the disclaimers in case we were crushed by debris, and then we embarked to the first house on our list. By all reasonable terms, this family had it relatively easy. Their entire garage was gone, their roof was gone, and most of their belongings were scattered in the wreckage in a field behind their home. Luckily their computer discs were not lost or damaged so they had most of their family photos. We sorted what had been a detached garage into piles of wood, metal, and trash and saved most of his collection of license plates (what he wanted most to reclaim). We reached a point where only heavy machinery could help him further and moved forward to the next home.
This home was on the outer edge of the direct path of the tornado. What had been a split level home was now a garage with a deck on top. Although all of this family’s belongings were either gone or in their back yard they were luckier than people in two homes on their street that did not make it out alive. One house, two down from theirs, is now nothing more than a concrete slab.
We went through their back yard to salvage any furniture that was not too damaged and to collect any small personal items we could find that belonged to them. What you find out when you are going through a disaster like this is that a lot of the items on property came from somewhere else. You are also made aware before you go out into the city that every time you pick something up you may find the body of someone picked up by the tornado and dropped as it passed through. No one in my group met with these unfortunate circumstances, but it stayed in our minds as an ever present reminder of what lies beneath the piles of wreckage and the reality the residents of this area are dealing with each and every day in the hours between military curfew.
While helping these folks, a neighbor who had not been able to get his medicine in four days asked if we could help get his driveway clear so he could attempt to get a prescription. We cleared the driveway, and ended up having to chainsaw the main support beam from his house in two to get his vehicle clear. The jeep started right up despite having no windows and being completely ruined on the interior. Having finished this task and doing all we could for the other home we arrived at the last house we would help.
This house was perched atop a hill looking down over the high school practice field in the center of the tornado’s path. With all of the homes and trees gone, one could see the entire path of destruction. We stared in disbelief at the greater portion of a six mile path of devastation three quarters of a mile wide. No picture or video could ever capture the gravity of this sight. This last home was completely collapsed in on itself. The employee we were there to help had been at work during the storm, and told us his story. His parents had gone into their front closet to wait out the tornado, and when the walls of the house had fallen inward they were buried underneath. Not being able get through the streets, he went straight through the neighborhood and found their house by recognizing a neighbor’s car that was not swept away. Terrified at what he saw he called out to them. It was then he heard their voices coming from underneath the front wall of the house, and their dog dug out from underneath the walls and showed him where they were. You can’t make this stuff up. It took them a couple of hours, but eventually they were freed from their pocket that had sustained them through the storm. Hearing this story and looking at their home, I was in disbelief that anything could have survived.
After we cut apart the tree on top of their home and retrieved the owner’s cedar chest containing her great grandmother’s quilts, and some awesome KC Chiefs paraphernalia, it was time to head back and go home.
This was the part that was hardest for me. Even after a day of backbreaking dangerous work, I looked around and felt like I had not accomplished anything. An overwhelming sense of futility, paired with a strong sense of guilt that I got to go home overcame me and has not left. Every day when I wake up I think about all of those trying to make sense of everything and clear enough land to start to think about rebuilding. Every night when I go to sleep I think about everyone that has to leave their neighborhoods and go to shelters under military curfew. I think about my friends and colleagues who still cannot reach their loved ones because the phone lines and cell towers are not functional. I think about all of this and realize that the Chiefs are doing a great thing by donating money and filling up semi-trailers with goods, but this is merely a drop in the bucket. We all need to pitch in and keep helping through the entire process no matter how long it takes. This is not a problem that will go away in a week, a month, or even a year. It sure as hell is going to take a lot more from me personally than one day trip.
If all you can do is make a small donation, or even just show support to the readers/writers on this site that are affected, everything you do means exponentially more than you can know. If you live in a close enough proximity, contact your local Red Cross to see how you can help. Access to the area is limited because of looting (not everyone is full of the indomitable human spirit), so bringing supplies may be all that you can do. You can also donate blood, that doesn’t cost a thing. Please though, do something.
If you are in the area devastated by the storm, know that you are not forgotten. We are here to support however we can. Our hearts and hands go out to you.