All of us here in Joplin have tornado stories. My story, while hair-raising to me, is nothing compared to the stories of so many of my friends. I know that, this time, I was lucky. The challenge for those of us who were physically untouched by the tornado is figuring out how to properly balance an immense sense of pride for the strength and resilience of our community while suitably acknowledging the tremendous loss felt by so many of our neighbors and friends. Make no mistake about it, we have come a long way, but we still have a very long way to go.
Amy Stevens is one of my friends whose tornado story is typical – the event starts benignly enough, and then escalates to fear as she realizes the storm’s impact on her family and the community around her. For me, Amy and her family embody the strength of so many others here in town. Amy is a fellow blogger, and recently provided her account of the storm and how her experience impacted not only her impression of the community but also her perspective on life in general. Please take a minute to read about Amy and her family and how they have returned to a more normal – and more grateful – life here in Joplin.
For me, the impact of the storm on May 22nd took several hours – even days – to digest. Miraculously my family found its way home from graduation just as the storm hit St. John’s Regional Medical Center. As my parents and sons entered the house and we raced to the basement to take cover, our electricity went out with a powerful “boom”. After fifteen minutes of rain, hail, and wind, things quieted down and we waited for word about when the remaining graduation activities would resume. Slowly we received bits and pieces about destruction throughout the city: “Academy is gone.” “Our family is safe, but both cars are destroyed and the roof of our house is missing.” “IHop is gone.” “The top two floors of St. John’s are gone and power lines are down.”
At this point, we realized this was no ordinary thunderstorm. We began the tedious and frustrating task of determining the whereabouts of our friends and the amount of destruction they encountered. By eleven o’clock that night, all but one of my daughter’s friends were accounted for. This friend lost his life in the tornado, and will be forever missed by the Sticklen family.
At midnight we learned our church – and our son’s school – had been decimated.
|St. Mary's church and school|
Other stories slowly filtered in over the next several hours and days. One of my friends and her family were driving home from graduation when they pulled into their neighborhood and had a tree fall onto the hood of their SUV. While that tree probably saved their lives, their home and business were both destroyed by the tornado.
Another friend was in the Caribbean with her husband when they got the news that the tornado had ripped through their neighborhood and destroyed almost all the homes. She waited with bated breath for news that her children – who were home at the time – were safe (and, thankfully, they were).
My daughter’s friends, most of whom were returning home after graduation, have their own stories to tell. Some were trapped in their cars while others sought refuge at strangers’ homes along the route. Like us, some even made it home just before the storm hit, only to go back outside and participate in search-and-rescue efforts. These kids saw things they no longer wish to talk about. They became adults that night, much more quickly than they had anticipated. No matter how much I wanted to shelter them, I learned that some things are simply out of my control. I also learned about their resilience and strength in the face of tragedy.
Tonight is Joplin High School’s graduation. For me, it will be the ultimate representation of a return to normalcy. Tonight’s graduates will listen to speeches – some by persons of notoriety (the President of the United States and the Governor of Missouri), some by their fellow students – then they will wait in anticipation to hear their names called out as they walk across the stage and receive their diplomas while their families cheer loudly for them. Afterward they will take pictures with their friends and then return home to prepare for their Project Graduation. Hopefully, this evening will be completely normal. At the same time, it also embodies the strength, patience, and resiliency of many who have endured so much and learned to live – and even prosper – during the most aberrant moment in our city’s history. Students who lost not only their homes and loved ones but also their school have persevered through the hardships in order to achieve tonight’s goal. For them, this year’s graduation is more than a ceremonious rite of passage. It is a celebration of overcoming the greatest obstacles ever presented to our community and the power of the Human Spirit.
Today, as we prepare to commemorate this past year and all its tragedies and triumphs in a variety of ways, I would like to leave you with this: Many people here in town lost their homes and/or businesses. Several lost loved ones. All have shown strength and grace unlike anything I have ever witnessed. I am proud to be a part of this community, and my heart is heavy with sadness for those who lost so much. I find it incredibly difficult to reconcile these emotions, and I hope my words, feelings, and actions never offend but instead pay tribute to the amazing people I am fortunate to call my friends and neighbors. May our city rebuild stronger than ever while still maintaining the wonderful sense of community we possess which, in my opinion, is our greatest resource and quality.