Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My city of ruins

A third of my hometown was blasted to splinters.

In real life, tornadoes don't give you a bump on the head and send you off to Oz. They drive you to hide and cower and scream, and you hear the sounds of things flying that aren't meant to fly, and your ears pop and your skin crawls and sky is the deepest bruised black and the house blows out from around you. If you're lucky the tornado passes near you but not through you. It runs through farmland and not through the town. If you're unlucky the tornado sucks down to the ground and chews its way through your house, your neighborhood, or, in the case of Joplin, a third of the city. A day later they had counted more than a hundred dead.

Tornadoes are to May in Missouri as wildfires are to California in October. In May in Missouri, any evening the thunderheads may build up and the air begins to change and you glance at the sky and wonder. Thirty years removed, I still feel the thunder and the unexpected hanging in the air. When tornadoes come to the ground chances are they will tear up some barns and plow  through the fields. But when they intersect with a town, and when the tornado is strong, people die.

It was Sunday evening in Joplin. Some people were taking part in their second church service of the day. Others were putting dinner on the table. A "tornado watch" was in effect, but when you live in that part of the world it's a common thing. Even when the "watch" becomes a "warning" you may not pay attention. It happens all the time, and you don't know where the funnel is, and it wouldn't matter if you did because there's nowhere to run. The sirens sound. If you have a basement you go there. If you don't have a basement you hide in the bathroom or a closet or just sit and wait.

Then you hear something that sounds like a train. Everyone always says it sounded like a train. And for a few seconds you are overwhelmed. Roaring, crushing, shuddering. Screams people make on rollercoasters. A dog barks. A woman shouts out Jesus! Heavenly Father! Thank you, Jesus! over and over. Powerlessness. Panic. Surrender.

If you live through it, you're in a shock that won't allow you comprehend what you see. Trees you've climbed stripped of their bark or torn up by the roots like onions. A brick embedded in the side of a car. Houses of your neighbors disfigured, indecipherable trash piles. What was once familiar has become an alien landscape. Houses, schools, a hospital, nursing homes, churches, some 8,000 structures, now churned and tangled waste.

What's to become of Joplin, that rough old town with the outlaw past? Can they put it back together? In the week since I began to write this, I've come around to saying yes. It's a place that's been remade before, and it will be remade again. Some, the rootless, will have  lost too much and will walk away. The rest - more likely to keep praising God than to complain - will bury the dead and clear away the mess and quietly rebuild their town. The work will continue long after the television news crews have moved on to the next disaster. The work will continue long after everyone knows it will never be the same.

Congratulations to the Times' writers who did this piece. They captured a true sense of Joplin and its people.

   

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