We were having dinner with my in-laws who were visiting when the phone rang. Our youngest jumped up to answer it, but didn't recognize the hoarse voice of her uncle who said that a massive tornado had just struck Joplin. Confused, she hung up and told me what the caller said. I turned on the weather channel to find out what was going on and saw a reporter standing on the street with the heavily-damaged St. John's hospital in the background.
It was shocking, to say the least, but I found out quickly that the tornado had missed my dad's home and they were safe. But there was so much damage! We all saw it on the news for days.
Going to my dad's for his 80th birthday at the beginning of the month was my first chance to go back and see, up close, what had happened. I never lived full-time in Joplin as my brother and sister did. My father grew up there and has been there most of his adult life, so it was in Joplin that I spent many Christmases and summer vacations.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day, the day they drove us through the Tornado Zone. Just like the day it happened, my stepmother said. Dad didn't want me to go alone through the area since all the landmarks I knew as a child, along with the street signs, were gone. I would very quickly have become lost unless I drove in a straight line to the end of the damaged area. All over town the street names have been spray-painted on the streets---one of the legacies that will live on for many years, I guess.
The Joplin I have known all my life never looked like this! The Joplin I knew was a grid of streets filled with houses and trees and businesses all squashed together on small, rectangular lots. Now, you can see from one end of town to the other. Most of the trees and houses are completely gone, the debris cleared away for the most part. Here and there are remnants of houses still standing that make you wonder what happened to the owners and their family.
I was driving and one of the children was wielding the camera, so I don't have the pics I would have liked. There's a beautiful, rebuilt playground across from the hospital that the Extreme Home Makeover team built for the children of Joplin. There are seven lovely, little, unique homes that they built, not far from the park, that send a message of hope to the community. There are also several Habitat for Humanity houses near there.
The whole area is so unrecognizable that I didn't even realize as we slowed to a stop at a corner that we were next to my grandmother and grandfather's house. Amazingly, their detached garage, built of cinderblock, was leveled, but the frame house stood. It has been renovated and looks different, so it didn't really strike me as remarkable. But just a couple of blocks away, we came to my aunt and uncle's house, or where their house had once stood. I think the whole block was leveled.
That block had a feature that I've rarely seen anywhere else----there were 3-4 steps leading up from the sidewalk, and there were retaining walls built of concrete along the front of the yards, instead of gently sloping hills. Their wall was always painted red, and that's how I knew where we were when my brother, in the car in front of us, stopped. The red wall was there, along with it's neighbors, but no houses on either side of the street. And that was when I burst into tears.
I loved that house. I loved my aunt and uncle who lived there with my 2 cousins, and I loved the many, happy times I spent there as a young child. It was a modest, tiny house, as most of them are in Joplin. It probably had only 3 bedrooms, if that, and 1 bathroom, so I guess it wasn't the house, but the family it stood for.
I'm happy that my family no longer lived there and my aunt didn't have to witness the destruction of the home where she raised her children and lived most of her life. I know my father, who was very lucky, is heartbroken over the damage that has been done to his beloved hometown.
But, you know what? During the whole drive, we heard story after story of heroism during and immediately after the tornado. We heard stories about how all the churches and the people are working together to rebuild their community. It will be a very, long process, but it is happening, and I pray that all those who were hurt will be healed during the process of rebuilding. It's amazing to hear how generous everyone is during tragedies like this. It's too bad that it takes tragedies like this to bring people together.