Tuesday, May 22, 2012

From June 5, 2011: Joplin's Apocalypse Now

(This post, which originally ran June 5, 2011, in The Turner Report and on Daily Kos, includes information about my first trip into the tornado-stricken area of Joplin after the tornado. This was included in our book, 5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado, and a more detailed version will be included in our upcoming book, Spirit of Hope: The Year After the Joplin Tornado. I took this photo in Duquesne. It will be included in the new book.

In a few hours, it will be exactly two weeks since a tornado ripped through my city and changed it forever.

I was one of the “lucky ones.” The tornado missed the apartment complex where I live by about three blocks. When I look outside the window, everything appears the same. It is an area that is seemingly untouched by the disaster.

Appearances can be deceiving, and in this case, are very much so.

When I listened to the radio coverage during the 10 or 15 minutes before the tornado hit, I thought it was coming my way, and there was not much I could do since I live on the second floor. I covered myself with an old blanket and a pillow and waited for fate to deal its hand.

The radio announcer continued to follow the path of the tornado as it moved away from where I lived and tore its way through the central part of Joplin.

Since that time, I have blogged almost non-stop, a coping mechanism. A reporter covering the tragedy described it as survivor’s guilt. That would probably be an accurate description.

For the first 36 hours after the tornado, I did nothing but offer my own thoughts, link to the best articles and videos and try to offer a service to those who were seeking information, any information, about the disaster.

Midway through the second day, I wandered into what once had been the heart of Joplin. In the school district where I teach, there are three middle schools. The one where I teach lost its gymnasium, auditorium, band room, and commons area, while classrooms suffered damage, and much of the roof was blown away.

That damage was nothing compared to what I encountered when I went to the apartment complex behind the 15th Street Wal-Mart, one of the dozens of business structures that were destroyed.

I was serving as a guide for someone else who needed information about the tornado as part of her job, but I felt more like Martin Sheen’s Benjamin Willard in Apocalypse Now as he continued a search that grew more nightmarish with every step. For as far as the eye could see, structures that had once stood proudly over Joplin’s landscape had been shredded, Every once in a while, I saw a sight that reminded me that this area had once served as home to hundreds of people, a matching pair of red flowers hundreds of feet from each other, a child’s doll, somehow intact in contrast to its surroundings.

My apartment was fine and I was grateful for that, but this was the area of town where my students lived…I correct myself, the area of town where my students once lived. The existence we all had taken for granted was no more, my students were uprooted now and maybe forever.

Through Facebook conversations with my students, I had learned that one of them, a tall redheaded eighth grader who was unfailingly polite in non-classroom settings, but occasionally a bit overzealous in class, had not been accounted for since the tornado. His apartment was one of those that would never again serve as a home.

I asked a few people about him and, as you might expect, in a large apartment complex with hundreds and hundreds of tenants, the people I talked to did not know the eighth grader.

Finally, I came across a man and his daughter quietly removing belongings from the remnants of an apartment. It was an apartment that was clearly damaged, but it appeared to be in a bit better condition that some of those surrounding it.

I asked about my eighth grader. “I don’t know him,” the man said, as he loaded a box into the back of his car. I thought it was another dead end, but he kept talking. “The apartment manager said everyone was accounted for and nobody was killed.”

As hard as that was to believe as I looked at the kind of scene I had only seen before in post-nuclear holocaust films, I felt much better. My student was undeniably suffering from the loss of a home, but he was safe.

The man continued to talk, volunteering information I had not asked for, but information that he clearly wanted to tell.

“My son was killed,” he said, leaving the four words hanging in the air.

I said nothing, but the exhilaration I had felt seconds earlier had vanished.

“He was the manager at Pizza Hut,” the man said, stopping once again. I had heard the story. Chris Lucas, 27, a veteran, had sacrificed his life, saving customers and workers at the restaurant as he guided them into a cooler.

“He has two little girls,” Terry Lucas said, adding that another child was on the way.

He talked for a while longer, about everything from his son’s acts of heroism to the young man’s love of fishing. 

It reminded me of the time 17 years earlier as a newspaper reporter when I had interviewed the mother of a murdered eight-year-old boy. For the most part, you don’t talk, you just listen. They have a story and they want to tell it. They need to tell it.

When I returned home, it was back to blogging; it wasn’t much, but it gave me the feeling I was contributing something, adding a touch of understanding to something that clearly is not understandable.

That night, I received a phone call from one of my eighth grade students, a tiny brown-haired girl who always seemed on top of the world. It was clear a few moments into the conversation that, despite her bravado, she had been deeply affected by the events of two days earlier.

While her home was untouched by the tornado, it was clear she did not fall into that category. She had been in the middle of the city when the tornado hit. She talked of having to walk by people who had been killed by the tornado.

“It didn’t bother me,” she said. “I’m going to be an EMT. I will have to get used to it.”

For the next 30 minutes or so, she told me how much it did not upset her.

Clearly, it did.

What upset her the most became clear. Many of her friends had lived in the apartments where I had been only a few hours earlier. Those friends were alive, but they had moved in with relatives or friends, away from Joplin, some even out-of-state. She was hurting because she might not see her friends again. The people she had counted on for support through hundreds of problems that now paled in comparison were scattered, likely never to be together again.

I was grateful that she had someone to talk to about it, and even more grateful that I was that someone. Again, it gave me a feeling that I could be of some use.

In the two weeks since the tornado hit, I have blogged one obituary after another, more than 100 of them. I have linked to stories of courage and bravery, links to sad stories of those who did not survive, inspirational stories of the way a city, a state, even a nation, came together to support Joplin.

Though I was sitting in my living room blogging my way through it, I felt hope when I heard the words offered by Rev. Aaron Brown, Gov. Jay Nixon, and President Obama at the memorial service one week after the tornado.

After a time, I continued to blog about the tornado, but I no longer felt guilt about having the St. Louis Cardinals game in the background.

The blogging will continue for the time being, lasting well past the time, I am sure, that the nation’s eyes are focused on my city.

It’s what I do.

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