Dispatch from Joplin: Pitching in

Thursday, May 26, 2011 | 9:23 p.m. CDT
Destroyed cars sit in the parking lot of the damaged St. John's Regional Health Center in Joplin, Mo. A tornado tore through much of the city Sunday, wiping out neighborhoods and killing at least 125 people.

JOPLIN — If I could choose only one word to describe my emotions in the aftermath of the Joplin tornado, it would be “overwhelmed.”

I am overwhelmed by the devastation and the loss. Overwhelmed with shock and grief. Overwhelmed by the indestructible spirit of survivors. 

But on top of all that, I’m overwhelmed by the kindness of neighbors and strangers alike.

I met up with Delta Tau Delta fraternity brothers from MU this morning who had traveled to Joplin together to help with the cleanup and recovery process. They were in Duquesne, a town just east of Joplin, separating sheet metal and fallen trees for FEMA to remove from the area — no simple task — when someone pulled a vehicle over to offer them breakfast. The fraternity brothers said that every five to 10 minutes, someone stops and offers them something to eat or drink.

This isn’t unusual. During my time in hard-hit residential areas, a pickup truck crawled by every few minutes, and people climbed from the rubble to grab a bottle of water or a hamburger. In a flattened parking lot on Range Line Road today, a man grilled hot dogs by himself to hand out to anyone who asked for one. There are assembly lines everywhere you turn making sure no one goes hungry.

The number of donations is staggering. At College Heights Christian Church, I literally needed a guide to find my way through the hallways, which are stacked with every type of supply you can possibly imagine. Outside of Forest Park Baptist Church, two U-Haul trucks pulled up to unload donations while volunteers rushed to assemble shelves on which to stack them.

I’ve often found myself wondering about the mystery man whom Amber, a woman I met a few days ago in the ruins of her home, told me about. Apparently, the man handed her $300 and refused to give his name. Amber said he walked up and down the street while doing the same for her neighbors.

Believe it or not, I’ve actually had trouble finding somewhere to volunteer for the past two days. I’ve always found a place eventually, of course, but not before being turned away at a couple of locations because they had more than enough help.

Meanwhile, my Mizzou family back in Columbia is scrambling to lend us a hand as well. I’ve lost track of all the locations that are accepting donations. There are blood drives, telethons, benefit concerts — and my personal favorite fundraiser: Iron Tiger Tattoo is donating all of its Friday profits to the Joplin relief effort.

Everywhere you turn, people are helping.

Of all the things I've gleaned from the survivors, their humility and gratitude stand out. Many can’t comprehend the generosity that strangers are showing them.

Today, MU basketball coach Frank Haith, along with several other members of the athletic department, arrived at the local Red Cross station with a van packed full of donations and stuffed Truman the Tiger toys for kids at the shelter. They passed out One Mizzou T-shirts to workers outside of Joplin High School. The shirts, I hear, are selling like wildfire and raising money faster than those distributing them can count it.

I tagged along as the group traveled down Range Line to survey the damage and stopped to speak with people along the way. I told Coach Haith I needed a good day — I needed to see some smiles. He said that’s what they had come to Joplin for, and he delivered.

I’m so proud to be a part of both Joplin, such a resilient city, and Columbia, such a giving one.

But as Robert Corn, basketball coach at Missouri Southern State University, said today, these people are still in shock. They’re running on adrenaline. Eventually, the realities of their situation are going to hit them, and I can only hope they will discover then that they’re not alone.

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