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Dispatch from Joplin: Counting themselves grateful

Monday, May 23, 2011 | 5:45 p.m. CDT; updated 6:41 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 23, 2011
The Joplin home of Eliza Smith's friend, Andrea Hertzberg, and her family remains exposed to the elements on Monday after being damaged by the tornado.

JOPLIN — There is an orange, spray-painted “X” on the front of my friend Andrea’s house. It means that everyone is alive and accounted for.

The Hertzbergs are a grateful crew. They don’t have a roof over half of their home. Most of their belongings are missing or ruined. Their vehicles are smashed to bits. But they’ve got the orange “X.”

Not everyone in Joplin has been so fortunate. The last count on Monday afternoon was 116 lost lives.

As I stepped across rubble to get into Andrea’s home, slipping through a glass door that didn’t contain a sliver of glass anymore, I expected to find her forlorn. I wouldn’t have blamed her for anything less.

But when she came around the corner to greet me, she was smiling. She pulled me into a hug and gave me the grand tour.

The roof, as I’ve said, was largely absent — tarps were spread across what belongings remained because it has been raining all day. Their Suburban had crashed into the dining room. A piece of the garage door had found its way into the kitchen. The windows in her bedroom were blown out, and there was a large hole in the wall where a pole had gone through it.

I took one look around and vowed never to joke again that my messy bedroom “looks like a tornado hit it.”

I was on the verge of tears, but Andrea spun around, grinning from ear-to-ear, and said, “We’re so lucky. Did you see our neighbor’s house?" (I had. There was nothing left but a closet.)

If there is a handbook for how to piece your life back together after a natural disaster, please refer me to it. “Where to start?” was everyone’s first question.

Andrea gave me some of her belongings to store at my own undamaged home: books, photo albums, an ancient collection of stuffed animals that had survived.

Then, she told me she hadn’t found her lucky elephant yet. She showed me a minute figurine of a Dalmatian, about the size of a dime and informed me that the elephant was the same size. I glanced around at the bits of glass and debris under my feet and tried not to feel hopeless.

When the last window was boarded up, the family decided it was time for a much-needed lunch break. We hashed out our options, as most of the restaurants in town are on Rangeline, and a sizeable portion of Rangeline was flattened.

Fortunately, Red Lobster remains.

Eliza Smith of Joplin, a student at the MU School of Journalism, was editor of her high school newspaper and wrote for The Jasper County Citizen in high school. She's working this summer as a reporter at the Columbia Missourian. Follow her on Twitter @ElizaMizzou.


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