Monday, June 6, 2011

Tornado aftermath...

Has it really only been two weeks? It seems hardly possible that only two weeks ago our family’s hometown was savagely shredded by an EF-5 tornado. I say hometown because although our mailing address was “Webb City”, the Joplin metro area is tightly interlinked and we feel as though we are a part of it as well. I dare not say that it has been worse living the tragedy from a couple thousand miles away, but I will say it has been a different, but also terrible experience. I feel as though I have to write about our personal experience of the tornado almost as a sort of therapy—to allow me to mentally think through the events and try to process them in some way and try to make them make sense.
The afternoon of May 22, I sat at my laptop working on something online—lesson plans or something that is now insignificant. As I clicked over to Facebook, I noticed some friends talking about storms in the area and I clicked over to see the weather and turned on the KZRG (a local talk radio station) app on my iPod so I could hear them giving the weather updates live. The storm was taking shape on my radar and I was hearing their live reports and this seemed to be more than just a normal storm. I texted my dad to let him know to be paying attention—my parents live just north of Monett and were just getting ready for church services to start in Mt. Vernon as the storm began to hit Joplin. I knew they would be in the storm’s path and I just wanted them to be alert.
Over the next seven hours I was glued to my computer and my ipod. During this time I lost my streaming from KZRG and turned to their Facebook page for updates. It was when I first saw a friend’s Facebook status that said: “trapped in basement. Top of house gone. God help us!” that I got a horrible feeling in my stomach. I prayed for my friend, and I knew things were bad. I sent a text (okay, several) to my dad in Mt. Vernon warning them that the storm was big, the tornado had touched down in Joplin and evidently had left severe damage. And, it was headed toward them.
My dad communicated to me a little later that they had warned their members of the coming storm when they dismissed services and offered the church basement for those who wanted to stay. My parents thankfully were among those who opted to stay rather than get on the highway back to Monett. The storm that passed through Joplin curved southeast after leaving town and trailed across southwest Missouri. A tiny remnant of the monster tornado passed by my parents’ house. It threw hay bales around in one neighbor’s field, took part of a roof off another neighbor’s house, left tree limbs strewn about at my parents’ home, and took out the apple tree in their backyard. Minor damage compared to Joplin, but I was relieved that they weren’t on the road in the storm or “trying to beat it home.”
The rest of the night—until the wee hours of the morning--I spent at the kitchen table with Ruth and Teresa. We listened to KZRG’s live feed of storm damage reports, watched the stream of the Weather Channel report in front of St. John’s, and read aloud our friends’ Facebook status updates as we got them. In between all this, I also continued to text my dad the information I was receiving and was able to text a few friends in Joplin. During these first few hours we, the ones living in the mountains in Central America, were strangely the ones who had access to the most information: we had high speed internet access and phone and texting availability. Our friends back home were without electricity, without internet, without cable tv, and with only limited phone and texting ability. I was able to text some of our friends who we knew were near the path of the storm and find out they were okay and was able to relay that information to others.
Ruth was the first to tell us that she’d just read on Facebook that Pizza Hut and Academy Sports are “gone.” We sat stunned at the news. Gone. Then came word of Home Depot and WalMart. And then news that one or both hospitals had taken a hit. Our beloved city was in ruins it sounded. But we were only beginning to hear of the damage. It was sometime during those first few hours we began to hear reports via text messages and Facebook of our friends’ homes that were lost to the storm and of friends who were last known to be at WalMart but whose whereabouts were now unknown. At that point it became almost too much to take. I could turn off the computer and the cell phone and shut out the ugliness that we were reading and hearing and seeing. And I contemplated it. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t. I felt somehow that having more information would help me to cope, would make it somehow all easier to manage. But it didn’t. It only added to the desperation we felt. Our friends were hurting and we were completely helpless.
Only we weren’t helpless. Our efforts to help just took a different form than what we might have wanted. Whereas we wanted to be helping our friends salvage what they could from the ruins of their homes or delivering food to those who needed it, or handing water to the rescue workers, or just hugging our friends, that was not what God had planned for us. Our job was to be messengers. Over the next seventy-two hours there were times when we were able to relay information we received via Facebook, via online news outlets, via KZRG’s online streaming, and via text messages to our family and friends who were in ground zero in Joplin. Their communication infrastructure was damaged and most still had no electricity. We were able to post Facebook messages and send emails for them. They were able to relay the necessary information to us via text messages, which were working even when internet and electricity was down. Erin and I were also able to repost lists of needs and phone numbers on the Facebook pages established in the early hours—the posts on these pages moved quickly and vital information needed reposted often in order to be easily found. As I found needs on various Facebook pages and via text messages, I could relay them to the people on the ground via text message. This system allowed some of the workers on the ground to come in contact with needs they otherwise might not have known.
Ruth and I found ourselves hungering for more information in the days that followed. We checked the local news stations, we followed several Facebook groups, and we listened to KZRG for information. We also watched as the entire Good Morning America crew showed up in our town to broadcast the national news. We cried for the devastation that we saw and for our now unrecognizable hometown. We ached to hug our friends and comfort them personally. My parents and aunt and uncle and countless friends have gone over from Monett and Mt. Vernon to help in Joplin. They have met several of our church friends and worked alongside them. They all say the same thing when they return: pictures cannot express what they are seeing there.
The people here in El Salvador have heard about the Joplin tornado and the church here has prayed for the city of Joplin. It is interesting to talk to people here about a tornado that can do so much destruction and kill so many people. Several have said to me they can’t imagine wanting to live in a place with tornadoes because they are so deadly and so destructive and frightening. This is coming from people who live in a country prone to earthquakes and volcanoes and who live in the mountains where the rainy season can bring deadly and damaging landslides.
Our church family from Mt. Hope Church of Christ in Joplin has worked tirelessly since the tornado. In the first hours after the storm they opened as a shelter and then as a distribution point and still now as a point of volunteer dispersal. I read their posts at night of their long days and hard hours and I wish I could step in and help for a few hours. Some of our friends helped the first few hours in the temporary morgue, others have helped man volunteer stations at the local university during the wee hours of the morning, others have hugged and listened to the survivor stories, and others have housed and fed out-of-state volunteers. One friend in California ordered cleaning and baby products online and had them overnighted to the church building to be there quickly and ready to distribute. Other friends have taken supplies directly to Joplin and others have sent checks or gift cards. So many people coming together to help. People’s true nature shines through in a tragedy.
Our family plans to return to the States in about five weeks. I know that our first glimpse of Joplin post-tornado will be heartbreaking and emotional. I know that I will again cry for the lives and homes lost. I know that parts of the city will be unrecognizable to us. But the spirit of Joplin is alive and well and I’m already reading of friends who are purchasing other homes and vehicles. I read of businesses who are finding new locations and continuing to serve the community and I am encouraged.
I want to encourage you to find a way to help. Not necessarily in tornado recovery—although if that is something you are able to do, that’s certainly a wonderful effort. But find a way to reach out to those around you. It’s easy to listen to that deceptive voice that tells you you’re not able to do anything—you’re too little or too old or too far away or too poor. Don’t listen. The night the tornado hit we felt helpless and far away, but God had a plan for us to help. He has a plan for you, too. Maybe it’s caring for your neighbor’s child so she can have time to go to the store. Maybe it’s taking food to a shut-in. Maybe it’s sitting and holding a friend’s hand when they need someone to sit with them. Maybe it’s putting new siding on a tornado-damaged house. Listen to Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Find a way to be His hands, and ears, and feet. Find those ‘good works’ that God has already prepared for you to do.


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