Last weekend, I traveled with some old college friends to a music festival in a tiny town about an hour outside Chicago. We caravanned up, all the way from Columbia, MO – home to the University of Missouri, where I graduated a couple years ago.
Columbia’s not far from Joplin, MO, a little city with a big soul that’s still reeling after a multi-vortex tornado killed at least 125 and left countless people without homes. Having gone home and been so near a tragedy, I’m imbued with a profound sense of fortune I was spared, and there’s nothing to thank but luck.
Tornadoes don’t discriminate. They don’t care about your race, creed, paycheck, who you love, where you live … none of it. The wealthiest folks in Joplin were just as vulnerable as the people living in the nearly 100 public housing units the twister destroyed. Two children who called those units home are dead.It could have been any one of us instead. Driving through Missouri, I remember cursing the weather – angry storms with torrential rains, which made for a terrifying trek. A pack of pals reveling in each other’s company, my friends and I were jamming to our buddies’ bands on CDs instead of listening the radio. We had no idea how bad the storms were. And the whole weekend, we didn’t have much electricity. Unplugged from the digital world, where news of disasters spreads like wildfire in emails, Facebook exchanges, and Twitter postings, we were cheating death, and we were clueless.
Detached from the wired world, none of us fathomed that both to and from the festival, we drove through the same spate of storm systems that displaced six veterans holding who held housing vouchers and affected an estimated half of all voucher holders in Joplin.
Imagine my horror when, on Monday, I finally recharged my smartphone and learned, via an outpouring of messages in all mediums, that this amazing town, just 160 miles south of where I grew up – Kansas City – was all but obliterated. I realized that I had friends who might have died. I realized I could have died.
Fortunately, there’s an ethereal togetherness in the Midwest. It’s a region full of people with chutzpah and heart, people whose collective goodness knits a safety net of goodwill astonishing in its strength. Needless to say, I was far from surprised to hear that Joplin had so many volunteers pouring into the town, officials were having to turn them away, unable to distinguish the gawkers from the good hearts.
I had the pleasure of talking to one of those good hearts – Samuel Karson, a University of Missouri student who dropped everything and ventured to Joplin to lend a hand however he could.
“I felt like, if I can go, why should I not go? If I’m able to get there in a reasonable time and help out, why not?” Karson said.
Karson and company arrived in Joplin on Monday night and proceeded to chip in any way they could. They helped a friend sift through the rubble of her demolished home, collecting what memories they could find.
“We drove into this neighborhood,” Karson said, “and it was just complete devastation … a lot of the houses still had some structure to them.”
Sadly, those houses belonged to the lucky ones. Too many homes were obliterated.
“We helped this family, for probably five hours,” Karson said of a family belonging to one of the unfortunate homes. “We helped them dig out jewelry boxes, family pictures, soccer trophies, high school newspapers, anything they felt was a keepsake or was valuable.”
Karson and his friends had to leave town Monday night when another round of storms pummeled Joplin again, knowing the worst place to be in severe weather is a town with a demolished hospital … but they came back. (They later saw the hospital. Karson described it as “eerie … like images you see on the news from Baghdad, like it had been bombed.” He saw a parking lot full of demolished cars, still sitting where they’d been before the storm, but destroyed.)
Parts of the city were too ravaged to describe, Karson said. “There were no trees, they’d all been snapped off 10 feet high or uprooted, telephone poles were snapped like twigs,” he said. “[There were] piles and piles of rubble, everywhere. We’d drive through an area and just say, what used to be here? Was this a residential area? A commercial area? You can’t really tell.”
“Horrifying,” he said. “That’s all you can really say about it.”
Yet, “Literally every one or two minutes, someone would drive by or bicycle by and say hey if you need water, hey we’ve got food if you need some, we’ve got pizza, we’ve got sandwiches.”
Karson had too many stories to fit into a simple blog post. Suffice it to say, the horror and the humanity affected him deeply. In a warped, beautiful way, the outpouring of support and love, and the resilience of Joplin’s people, “was amazing,” he said.
Tornadoes don’t discriminate, but fortunately for Joplin – and heaven knows Joplin could use a dose of luck – it’s nestled in a part of the country where benevolent people don’t discriminate, either. Missourians love and aid others passionately and without prejudice. As the mess gets cleaned up, and homes are found for the displaced, I hope you’ll all consider adopting the same mentality, donating, praying, and thinking positive thoughts. After all, as far as a twister’s concerned, we’re all the same. We are all Missourians.