Thursday, June 21, 2012

From Spirit of Hope: Historic Storm, Historic Recovery

(The following is John Hacker's introductory story for our newly-published book, Spirit of Hope: The Year After the Joplin Tornado. The book is now available at and can be purchased at the link in the upper right hand corner of this page.)

Historic storm, historic recovery
By John Hacker

Wow, what a year.

The clich├ęs all apply to the Joplin tornado, historic storm, storm of epic proportions, storm of the century, pull them all out, they all work here.

As terrible and deflating as the tornado of May 22, 2011 was, the recovery of the year since that day has been almost as magnificent and inspiring.

While no community could ever be prepared to take a direct hit from a storm the magnitude of the one that hit Joplin, probably no area of the country has had more practice at recovering from tornados as we here in the Four States have.
All that practice, from the tornado that hit 32nd Street in Joplin in 1997, to the Parsons, Kan., tornado in 2000, to the tornados that hit Barton and Lawrence counties in December 2002. Who could forget May 4, 2003 when four tornadoes lashed at Cherokee County, Kan. and Franklin, Kan, and Carl Junction, Stockton and Pierce City, Mo., There were the ice storms of 2007. Remember? There were two of them.

There was the Mother's Day tornado of 2008 that put the last nail in the coffin of the already dying community of Picher, Okla., then devastated a section of rural Newton County. More than two dozen people died that day.

As terrible as those events were, it just seems like Mother Nature was warming up.
But so were we. The residents of this region learned from all those events. As Joplin Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer said, weaknesses are strengths pushed too hard.
Even though we were in shock at the magnitude of the devastation, we also knew we had been here before. This was magnitudes worse than those earlier storms, but we had rebuilt our communities —  Parsons, Kan., Carl Junction, Mo., Franklin, Kan., Stockton, Mo., Pierce City, Mo.

Mother Nature scaled up the destruction, so we just had to scale up the reconstruction.

My journey that day started in the parking lot of what had been the Peace Lutheran Church at 20th and Wisconsin, maybe that's why I have a special affinity for that little church and why I returned on May 29, 2011 and again on May 20, 2012. Maybe that's why that church has an entire chapter dedicated to it in this book, but that church represents dozens that are struggling, but vowing to overcome and rebuild even a year after the storm.

Personally, as I walked through the devastation east of Joplin High School at 6:30 p.m. on May 22, 2011, I was torn.

When do I put the camera and notebook down and help? But I'm not trained to help — my training is in recording events. Is that really important now? Is that a dead person over there?

I was able to do both that day. Many I talked to on that day were eager to talk. I was able to give them some information I had gleaned from the radio before getting out of my car. They wanted to talk, as if it somehow validated and confirmed that they had just gone through a terrible ordeal and come out alive.
I was also able to play a small part in prying two women who had survived the heart of that EF5 monster out of the car that had been destroyed around them.

As I walked that neighborhood between Wisconsin and Indiana avenues, and 20th and 24th streets, the smell of natural gas was everywhere. The air felt heavy — and it was. It was full of the dust and debris that had been people's lives only an hour before.
I remembered visiting Barbara Wells' home, at 22nd Street and Indiana Avenue just 18 hours before. Jeff Wells, a great friend and long-time colleague had been up with his wife, the lovely and talented Melissa Deloach Wells, visiting his childhood home and I came down and met with them for a few hours on May 21, 2011.

Now here I was in that same place on May 22, 2011 and I couldn't find Barbara Wells' home — I couldn't find 22nd Street. It was covered in debris.
This couldn't be the place I had visited a few hours before.

That area is cleared of debris now and construction is evident everywhere. I've had the great pleasure of covering many of the construction projects, thanks to my joh with The Carthage Press and thanks to Lee Radcliff, who owns Show Me the Ozarks Magazine.

Thanks to her assignments, I've spent more time in Joplin than I ever would have without them.

Joplin, your story is still being written.

A new chapter is added every time a home is finished or someone who was made homeless returns or every time a business or school reopens.

It's only been a year since the tornado and there is much to do, but you are off to a great start.

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