On our first trip this summer, we went to Pryor, Oklahoma to visit with friends and family. It just happened that our trip was taking us on highway 44 through Joplin just days after the tornado hit. As we started to drive, I was looking forward to being so close to the action. You can clearly see the path of the tornado on the map above. Highway 44 meets just the tip of the six mile damage on the right of the screen shot. We didn't know what, if anything, we'd see but I would keep my eye out for sure. About an hour east of Joplin, we turned on the radio. In between each song, the radio host would come on and give us updates on the work to be done in Joplin. Far ahead of us we could see that dark rain clouds were hovering over the city.
"I know it's raining now, but we really need your help. The Baptist church on 32nd street is accepting volunteers to make and serve food for anyone that needs it. We're collecting food and clothing and when the rain stops we'll need everyone's help to gather valuables from the rubble. The weather is bad now, but we desperately need your help."
As the announcer began to beg, my heart began to pound. When I first heard about the tornado, we were all stunned and saddened to say the least. I read about it and watched as much coverage as I could. We delivered food and water to our church to be taken to Joplin in a truck, but the city was asking that all out of town volunteers stay away for now. They just couldn't handle the traffic and there was no place to stay. It was the least we could do and maybe all we could do at the time.
But now we were here. They were begging for help and we were on our way. We had sleeping boys in the back seat and I didn't know if the work would be dangerous for them or if they would get in the way if we stopped. We only had less than an hour to spare anyway. Still all I could think was, I have two hands and we're HERE. We should stop. We should help. But it took 30 minutes for me to open my mouth. "Randall, we should stop in Joplin." I said with tears in my eyes. We were still 20 minutes away but Randall reminded me of all the reasons we shouldn't. They had asked us to stay away. How would we know where to go? "They said the Baptist church on 32nd Street." I answered. "But how will we know how to get there? There are no street signs. I don't even know if all the roads are clear."
There's an app for that, I thought to myself. But I couldn't get out any other words. Minutes and miles passed in silence. It started to downpour on us, but it was short. As we approached the devastated city, the rain stopped. To my left, houses were covered in blue tarps. Trees were broken into splinters. To my right a business flew a huge, tattered American flag at half mast. It was iconic and heartbreaking and the mere feet of damage I saw took my breath away. I sat silently and cried as the city and the opportunity passed us by. I prayed. I prayed for the people for the city. For the ones mourning 159 friends and relatives while there was still so much rebuilding physically and emotionally to do. I prayed for Randall and me, that we would know how to serve these people and we wouldn't let another opportunity pass us by.
Our very last trip of the summer would bring us back through Joplin. Randall did the research this time and realized that a group from our church would be serving the city at the same time that we would be driving through. Taking a week away from my family wasn't practical this summer since we had already been separated for a month. But we could spend a day.
So on our way to Tablerock Lake from Pryor, OK, we pulled off of 44 to do what we could for just six hours in Joplin. As we exited the highway, I didn't see the tattered flag anymore and the buildings along the highway were in pretty good shape. They've done a lot of work in two and a half months, I thought to myself. Is there anything left for us to do?
That was a stupid question. As we drove into the heart of the city things started looking worse. At first the houses were just damaged.
Then they were destroyed.
Then I started noticing that all the land surrounding the barely standing structures was leveled. There were empty lots everywhere, where buildings once stood.
On some of the land, there were tents, where people now lived. But many people just left the city. I think a resident told me that since the businesses and jobs were gone, about 40% of the population just moved away.
Almost three months later, the closer we got to the center of the city, everything was just rubble. My pictures and words don't come close to doing it justice.
We made our way through the city to Duquesne Elementary School. The school was in excellent shape but our job was to strip and paint bookshelves and get the school ready for students coming back in a few days.
We had the boys with us, but this time they wouldn't be an excuse, they would use their own two hands to serve along side us. Isaac and Asher helped rake and put dead plants in trash bags. They helped strip paint off of the bookshelves and painted for a minute themselves.
They took pride in doing the work that they did. But they also played hard with the principal's daughter who was up at the school doing her part, too. We stopped for lunch an hour or so after we got there. Some dark clouds were rolling in and it looked like it was going to rain. The principal's daughter, who looked a couple of years older than Isaac, watched the sky intently. She told Randall that she thought the storm would pass us by and it did for a bit. You don't even think about how the survivors feel every time the sky gets dark after experiencing something so traumatic as this. Did you know that the day after the tornado a police officer working among the rubble was killed when he was struck by lightning? How awful is that?!
For a while now, a church has been serving food for all of the volunteers (and anyone else who needed it) in the parking lot of Joplin High School. We stopped there for lunch.
That's the high school on the left. You can barely see under the word "drag" in the upper left corner a blue and white tent that serves food day in and day out. But just look at the destruction around it.
You can see the sign that used to say Joplin High School, just said OP High School after the tornado. Someone used duct tape and the sign now says HOPE. That's the overwhelming feeling throughout the town. I talked to a couple of locals who were now living in a tent on the grass next to our lunch area. One of them said that God saved him from the tornado so he could rescue his neighbors. He said his house was destroyed but he was completely unharmed. He's living in a tent now but has an overwhelming feeling of hope for the city and for whatever other reason God saved him.
In the midst of utter destruction, there is life.
There is Hope.
God, I live a perfectly lovely, and contented life. You have blessed me with two amazing, young boys; a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood; and a wonderful husband who is helping me to grow closer to you all the time. May I never use the blessings you've given me as excuses not to serve others. Show me how I can specifically serve You and your people. When it seems impractical, show me a way to move forward anyway. May I be your hands and feet in this world. God, bless Joplin. God, bless the people that are working so hard there. God, bless the survivors, the mourners, the rebuilders, and even those that have given up. Show up in Joplin in big ways, show up in my neighborhood in big ways. I know you are already. Help us all to see You here. And keep our hearts leaning towards Hope.