Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Joplin, Missery

George Carlin once said of the Midwest, "I couldn't live anywhere where an open window can cause death." Before I lived there, I thought he was exaggerating. He wasn't.

During my four years in Springfield, Missouri, I witnessed some weather that convinced me that, far from being God's Country, it was a special branch of hell. We once had 15 tornadoes in a single night. In January. In Louisiana terms, that's like having several hurricanes hit on Christmas Day. Except at least with hurricanes, you can track them on a chart for days. With tornadoes, you're lucky if you manage to hear the city sirens a few minutes before the twisters hit.

I'll never forget lying in my bathtub on a blanket as my apartment shook during one tornado, while a local DJ implored "all residents of Lake Shore, take shelter ... all residents of Chesterfield Village should take cover..."

I loved the feel and smell of Springfield summers, but to hell with that.

(Side note: Even the floodwaters currently putting much of south Louisiana in peril originate from recent storms in Missouri and Illinois. Seems it's hard to escape.)

I managed to emerge unscathed from my Midwest stint, and I had the benefit of not having particularly deep roots there. But for those who call southwest Missouri home and who have been affected by the destruction in Joplin, words can't describe the tragedy. A friend of mine, who is a journalist and a Saints fan, lost his house. He no doubt has to pour himself into the aftermath at the worst possible time. Hundreds, if not thousands, fared far worse. You know the story by now.

More than once since this happened, someone has said to me, "You got out at a good time, huh?" But in spite of everything, that's not how I feel. I wish I could be there. The journalist in me wants to cover the stories. The aid volunteer in me wants to help with relief. The copy editor in me wants to back up my friends and colleagues who are currently 70 miles from Springfield, far outside their (and anyone's) comfort zones. The friend in me wants to track down the Joplin girl I met once in Springfield and see if she's still alive. The philanthropist in me wants to give, even though I have nothing to give but a blood type not currently in demand.

And it looks like it's not over yet. More terrible weather looms for Joplin and is making recovery all that much harder. Keep up with developments (and how to help) at the Springfield News-Leader and the Joplin Globe.

On the Globe’s website, there’s a story about high schoolers who graduated one hour before the storm hit. As if their future wasn’t uncertain enough before...

I don’t know if it’s because of my age, profession, the Internet era or what, but it seems like these past few years (and 2011 especially) have been nearly apocalyptic weatherwise. It’s like a literal kick in an ailing ass, an exclamation point on the notion that we’re living in hard times. Which brings me back to the graduates — imagine being 18 and this being your normal. I don’t know if I could take it. On the other hand, maybe they’re used to this. If so, more power to them. In any case, I think it’s intrinsic among Americans to stand their ground in the wake of disaster. We’ll need that kind of outlook to rebuild Joplin and every place like it.

I just wish we didn’t have to.

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