(Originally published on May 29, 2011)
Obliteration. That’s the only word I could come up with that even comes close to describing the sights, sounds and even smell as I crept through the ravaged southern section of Joplin on Friday.
The day after the storm, a friend wrote in his column he never knew devastation had a smell. I understood his words when I read them. I didn’t understand his meaning until I arrived on the scene. The visual impact of the damage is hard to describe. Standing in the middle of the damage, no matter what direction you turn, this incredible openness stretches as far as the eye allows. The remains of St. John’s hospital could be seen from nearly four miles away. That’s not supposed to be possible. Trees, homes, businesses, all should prohibit that view. Instead, there was nothing but what seemed to be a vast plain of tattered and torn wood stretching from one edge of the city to another.
The wood —maybe that was the smell permeating everything? It’s hard to describe. At first I thought it smelled like a layer of wet mulch had been spread across the city. But there was something else in the air, too. It wasn’t pungent, it was just there. These words shouldn’t really work together, but it was an audible smell of silence cast over everything. A smell that at first just forces you to silently stand and look, unable to move. A smell that almost drowns out thought and sound and maybe even appears to slow time itself.
Early estimates tell us close to 8,000 structures were obliterated in Sunday’s F5 tornado. There’s that word again. It’s such an ugly word. It’s one of those words we wish didn’t exist. There’s no good description of anything that includes that word. Everything about it is negative. My hometown. My Joplin. So much of it is gone. Every block we drove through held some piece of history for me, a family member or friend. Everywhere I looked some piece of history had been wiped out.
My soul cried this weekend. My soul cried for friends and family who lost everything. My soul cried for a community in pain, a community in shock after one of the worst tornadoes our country has seen since we began keeping such statistics. I wept this weekend.
But maybe they weren’t all tears of pain and anguish. There was beauty mingled among the remains of Sunday’s destruction. Rising above the stench, echoing above silence of mourning, were the sounds of feet.
There were people everywhere this week. Mixed among the survivors, neighbors, friends and family are thousands of volunteers — some of them out-of-town family, mostly strangers. For every decimated home, there have been triple the number of handshakes and hugs as acquaintances become family in a united effort of support. Parking lots have become impromptu kitchens and shelters. Memorial Hall is now St. John’s emergency room. The streets have become the paths of the righteous as Saints — yes, Saints marching onward in faith and the brotherhood that comes with a community united. Everywhere you turn, trees, lone remaining pieces of lumber from a now vanished home, have become impromptu poles to display the flag of our nation. Those many flags aren’t just a symbol of pride and unity, they’re a reminder of our roots. We are a nation of the people, by the people and for the people.
So therein lies the beauty. It’s the people. Nothing can obliterate the pain we feel after the loss of so many lives. Nothing can magically wipe away the sorrow and smell that comes with the physical devastation stretching along that six-mile path of hell. But the beauty of humanity and our unwillingness to let this community suffer alone should give us hope. Recovery and rebuilding efforts will take time, probably more time than any of us want to admit. But in those moments when the smell is too strong and all you can see is the emptiness of what was, just listen for the sound of those feet. Because that’s the sound of your neighbors, your family, your friends and a nation carrying a promise of hope.
And what a beautiful sound it is.