A year ago on May 22, 2011, a devastating EF 5 (Enhanced Fujita Level 5) tornado devastated one-third of my hometown of Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 people and destroying 10,000 homes and businesses. Thank God, the entire world rushed to help and thousands of heroes descended on Joplin to volunteer.
I'm sure as heck no hero. (Luckily, I was in Las Vegas getting drunk when the tornado hit.) I got back to Joplin three days after the storm touched down, and I thought I'd roll into Joplin Hollywood-style: tell some jokes and cheer everybody up. Man, was I wrong. It was like running into a brick wall. Everybody was walking around like zombies. There were no lights or street signs anywhere. I kept getting lost in areas I'd been in a thousand times. It looked like the old history films showing the bombed out city of Berlin, Germany in 1945. There was three times as much rubble in Joplin than they recovered at ground zero in New York City on September 11, 2001.
There are thousands of stories but I'll just mention a couple that really touched me. My friend Lacey and her boyfriend Juan (former cornerback at Joplin High—Go Eagles!) were driving when they got caught in the middle of the tornado on the east side of Joplin four blocks from my house. They were pulled up into the tornado where they got into a head-on, mid-air collision with another car. They somehow made it to the ground alive, but Lacey had suffered a major head injury: her forehead and skull were split wide open. Juan took her to the nearest hospital, but it had been hit hard as well—five people died in the hospital ICU when the generator and back-up emergency generator were blown away.
The ER doctor on duty was an absolute hero. He was working in a destroyed hospital with no power, dead and injured people everywhere, and running things like a Marine Corps General. Lacey and Juan made it to him in the ER and the doctor immediately told Juan, "Keep her away from any mirrors. If she sees her head she'll go into shock and die." At that moment, Juan collapsed on the hospital floor and the doctor found a four-inch splinter, a/k/a Texas toothpick, in his throat. The doctor said, "I gotta perform an emergency tracheotomy on you and take that splinter out right now or you're gonna choke to death". As he was choking, Juan said, and I quote, "Do what you gotta do, doc". I'm happy to tell ya, Juan and Lacey were happily married four months after the storm and are doing great! There wasn't a single dry eye at that wedding.
Will Norton, an 18-year-old aspiring filmmaker who had earned a full scholarship to Chapman University in Los Angeles to go to film school, graduated from Joplin High right before the tornado showed its ugly face. He and his father were driving home to eat pizza and celebrate his graduation with his mom and sister when they got caught in the 350-mph twister. Will Norton was sucked up into the tornado through the sunroof of the Hummer, and his father broke both arms trying to save his boy. Will went missing for days. Hope was lost when they finally found him in a pond a quarter-mile away. Will Norton died on that awful day just two hours after his high school graduation. God bless him and his family, especially his dad. Hollywood sure could have used a guy like Will. You can find his hilarious short films on YouTube.com.
As sad as it makes me to think about all the horrible losses, it's one year later and Joplin is coming back strong. Hard work and good attitudes go a long way. Eighty-percent of the lost businesses are either back or being rebuilt. Brand new houses are springing up everywhere and the FEMA trailer city keeps getting smaller and smaller. The new high school (the second largest high school in the state) and new hospital are under construction. Joplin will never be the same, but the future looks bright. The people of Joplin are a pretty darn tough group. I sure wish the catastrophe would have never happened, but those gritty, salt of the earth, southwest Missourians were ready for the fight. President Harry S. Truman would be very proud. I'll never call anyplace else home.
Thank you to the countless volunteers and people who donated money to help Joplin. The citizens are forever grateful and will never forget your generosity. There are still plenty of houses to be rebuilt and we've got to reforest this town or the future generations will never forgive us. Tens of thousands of beautiful trees were lost. Any money you could donate to the Arbor Day Foundation would be a big help. http://www.arborday.org
For further information on the rebuilding of Joplin, MO: http://www.joplintornadoanniversary.com
(Top photo by Preston Lacy; Bottom photo by Doug Hunt)