On May 22, 2011 an EF5 tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri. The storm devastated the city, killing 161 people and injuring thousands of others.
Joplin is an hour away from my hometown of Springfield, Missouri, and five years ago I watched that storm unfold on the TV in my house. I watched the sky turn black as it approached Springfield, and I can still remember the feeling of relief I experienced when I discovered the storm had fizzled out before it reached us.
I didn’t know the devastation it had caused until the 10 o’clock news that Sunday evening. While my Facebook newsfeed was filled with photos of the marvelous double-rainbow that had stretched across Springfield after the storm, the citizens of Joplin were emerging from shelter to find their homes, lives, and hearts utterly ravished. I turned on the TV, and I will never forget the first image I saw of the town that was once Joplin.
The hospital. The moment I saw this image something in me shut down. I felt guilty for posting pictures of that rainbow. I was terrified to think it had only occurred an hour from my house. I was intensely worried about my extended family that lives near Joplin. I couldn’t even fathom the loss, the terror, or the sadness that these people were feeling. My fourteen-year-old heart broke for Joplin, and five years later it still cracks when I come across something about that storm.
I am oddly interested in tragic events. When I was growing up I read just about every book about the Titanic, and every year on September 11 I spend the day watching documentaries and reading articles. This storm in Joplin proved no different for me. I looked at every picture, news article, blurb, and Facebook post, and every night after dinner I was glued to the national broadcasts that were taking place an hour from my house. I was engrossed in this tragedy, and to be honest with you I never really knew why it peaked my interest so much. Every time I glued myself to that TV it made me extremely sad, and sometimes I wondered to myself, “Why am I doing this?”
I think that question was answered for me a week after the storm when my family and I went down to help with volunteer cleanup.
Seeing that town in person had the most significant impact on me. Everywhere I stepped I saw glimpses of strangers’ lives. There were shattered frames that contained old photographs, collections of books with waterlogged pages, baseball cards strewn over the foundations of destroyed homes, powerless alarm clocks, mud-covered jewelry, and so many other fragments of lives that were now damaged.
It was thinking about those individual lives and stories that really got to me that day. We helped two families rummage through their destroyed homes, and every single time they found something salvageable they got this look on their face. It was a look of deep sadness for a life they couldn’t get back, mixed with hopefulness and courage in knowing that someday they would find peace from this wreckage. Watching that happen on numerous occasions that day helped me and affected me more than I thought it could.
Helping those families answered my question of why I was so concerned with this tragedy. It was because I knew that each and every person affected by that tornado had a life, they had a story, and they were complexly strung-together humans whose existence had just hit a massive road block. They probably asked, “Why me?” They probably felt the country’s eyes on their town and wondered when life would even begin to contain normalcy again. Each and every person that was affected by that storm was affected differently, and for some reason that concept fascinated me. I wanted to learn their stories, and I wanted to help.
On the Sunday after the storm, President Obama toured the site and said these words for the people of Joplin,
“These things are beyond our power to control. But that does not mean we are powerless in the face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control. And it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.”
After the storm, I watched Joplin rebuild from a distance. When I drove through in the months after the storm I slowly watched it ease into a town that was not defined by its tragedy. The people of Joplin were resilient, they were brave, and they were hopeful. They didn’t let the storm win, and I think those feelings and actions are the one beautiful side-effect of any tragedy. Every time a disaster strikes, whether it be natural or not, it puts the fragility and the importance of life into perspective for everyone. It makes all of us realize what is fundamentally important.
It’s been five years since that day in Joplin, and I am still affected by it immensely. I still think about the families that we helped, I think about those waterlogged books, and I can still remember the feeling of the pang in my chest when I saw that hospital in person. It wasn’t real for me until I was viewing it up close, and since then, every news story I see has contained more meaning, more purpose, and more heartache. Joplin made me realize this:
Just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Please don’t forget that.