…an F5 tornado blew Joplin, Mo., to thunder. It destroyed a third of the town, debarked the trees, and left people staring at piles of rubbles-that-used-to-be-homes.
In the aftermath I started reading local writer Carolyn Trout’s work. Here’s her latest, on the anniversary:
Today we mark the fifth anniversary of the Joplin tornado. It is appropriate that it also falls on a Sunday, just as it did in 2011.
The weeks leading into this have been packed with special commemorative events — some survivors choose to not participate in anything, others are going all out. Most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes. Yesterday a huge number of people took part in the Walk of Silence through Joplin, the route marked with banners bearing the names of the 161 people who died. It was immensely moving and solemn, and the Joplin Globe noted that even the dogs along the route did not bark.
Today there will be the Memorial Run, a half-marathon that has been run every year on the anniversary. There is also a 5K run and a children’s run, both annual events. This year they are adding a full marathon that will be a Boston Marathon qualifier. There are Joplinites who want to run in Boston. Disasters bind people together in disparate ways.
In the last week I have had occasion to drive through the tornado zone half a dozen times, and each time I take note of the lots that are still vacant, empty, like missing teeth in a street’s jaw, but every week there is a new construction zone, another house going up. The Chamber of Commerce says that over 90% of the businesses have rebuilt, and the census says that Joplin’s population is about a thousand people greater than it was pre-tornado. Things are getting back to normal, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite normal yet. Perhaps it never will.
Saturday afternoon I attended a showing of a documentary about the making of a mural that occupies the side of an old building at 15th and Main. The mural artists, out of Lawrence, KS, had planned the Joplin mural project before the tornado — that disaster changed the focus of the project, but it was an immensely important project for the city. Public art as healer. It worked. The same muralists had previously done mural projects in Tonkawa, OK, and Newton, KS, as well as a subsequent one in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and all four projects were covered in the film. Good documentary. I intend to buy a copy on DVD. I drove home down Main Street, pulled into a parking lot where I could see the mural, and sat there for a long couple of minutes. It helps to remember the positives that came out of this dreadful storm.
The city manager who was the face of Joplin for the months following the tornado is now in Texas, fired by the Joplin City Council after an ugly public airing of personality conflicts. The school superintendent who was the shining example of educational leadership is also gone, the victim of a school board run amok. The county commissioners finally had to step in and appoint people to the school board. Somehow local political fights seem to be inevitable. Peace and harmony might be impossible in the long run, no matter how well everyone got along when things were in pieces. But we go on, and the new trees continue to leaf out and houses continue to rise on lots that have sat vacant for five years. Today a new class graduates from high school.
For years I felt that Joplin was just the place where I ended up sort of by accident. No longer. Now I know I am a Joplinite. Now and always.