Dispatch from Joplin: Picking up the pieces

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 | 9:35 p.m. CDT; updated 9:01 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 25, 2011

JOPLIN — For myself and undoubtedly countless others in Joplin, it was another sleepless night dealing with the stress and worry from the tornadic devastation.

I began the morning at the Red Cross shelter in the athletic complex of Missouri Southern State University, where more than 100 newly-homeless people slept on cots on the same floor I proudly walked across at my high school graduation.

A Joplin Eagles banner, a token from the now flattened Joplin High School, still hung over the stage from Sunday's graduation ceremony. How could  a building that was once  a place of celebration transform to one of refuge  in a matter of hours?

Later, I found myself standing on the outskirts of Home Depot, watching rescuers attempt to recover victims from beneath the massive amount of ruins. One of the men, who had reported to the World Trade Center on 9/11 as a leader of Missouri Task Force 1,  described the similarities between the two scenes: family members arriving on the scene grief-stricken, desperate for signs of their loved ones.

I imagined what had happened, according to eye witnesses – people running for shelter into the building, only for the roof to be torn away and the concrete walls to collapse on top of them.

One body was recovered during our time there.

With an unfailing spirit, a rescue worker assured me that they still have hope. They’re still pulling for a miracle.

Surely Home Depot was the worst of it, I assumed. Surely nothing could be more tragic.

That was until I crossed Range Line, the street where the tornado hit the hardest and left the most destruction.

I can’t begin to explain the horrors these people have lived through. A woman named Amber fought back tears as she told me about an elderly neighbor who was sucked out  of her own window, and an 8-year-old boy who had been home alone with his little sister when the tornado hit and walked two blocks with a broken leg to check on his friend.

A man down the road described how he had led his family out of the laundry room, the only part of their house left standing, and walked through the wreckage barefoot until a stranger picked them up.

Most of the people on her street don’t have home owner’s insurance, Amber said. They have nowhere to go.

There's a time following a tragedy when the bewilderment fades, and for those of us left unscathed, the survivor’s guilt begins to set in. As I hugged Amber goodbye, vowing to come back and do what I could for her, I despised myself for my good fortune.

I feel guilty for having showered this morning. Guilty for having slept (however briefly) in a bed. Guilty for my clean clothes and for every minute I spend standing still, doing nothing to help.

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Harold Sutton May 24, 2011 | 10:38 p.m.

Thank you, Eliza Smith, for a story well told. I will be going there in the next few days delivering supplies. Not my first time to a natural disaster; but they don't get any easier. The first time for me was to look at the aftermath of a massive flood years ago in Kentucky. I became almost sick from what I saw and turned around within a few blocks and told the person with me I was not ready to see more for a few hours. There have been a number of other disasters I have responded to since. Each makes me humble and I grieve for those who suffered.

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