Dispatches from Joplin: Don't forget about us

Sunday, May 29, 2011 | 8:58 p.m. CDT; updated 9:04 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 29, 2011
President Barack Obama tours an area damaged by last Sunday's tornado, Sunday afternoon, May 29, near Joplin High School.

JOPLIN — It’s been one week since a deadly tornado ripped through the city of Joplin. One week since scores of lives were lost, since homes were torn to pieces and since people found themselves with nothing left but the clothes on their back. 

We all have unanswered questions. Will my loved one be found? Will I find a new home? Will our city ever be the same again? But perhaps the heaviest fear on everyone’s mind is that the world will move on and forget about us, leaving us to pick up the pieces alone.

Which is perhaps why President Obama received such a warm welcome Sunday. Thousands of people lined the streets outside of Missouri Southern State University, and more stood in a seemingly never-ending line to squeeze into the auditorium and to hear what comfort he had to bring us.

This was in no way a political speech; it was a memorial service. It was a funeral for the lives lost, many of which haven’t even been counted yet. As I slipped down a back row to my seat, I took the box of tissues someone placed there and held it in my lap. I knew it would come in handy, and it did, as I spent some of my time during the service passing tissues to my teary-eyed neighbors.

It was surreal seeing the president of the United States enter the room. It seemed to make the devastation we’d all been witnessing over the past week all the more real. Here was the president, in Joplin, coming to mourn with us our losses.

He didn’t speak until the end. Not until the church choir performed and the Revs. Monaghan and Brown delivered encouraging messages, and not until Gov. Nixon brought the crowd to its feet. Only when they were finished did Obama humbly take the stage.

He told us how world leaders had approached him while he was overseas this past week, telling him the people of Joplin were on their minds.

He took his hat off to the selfless volunteers from all over the country who rushed to our aid and to the heroes who gave their lives during the storm so that others might live.

He encouraged us to continue those heroes’ legacies and to pursue this life unselfishly in their honor, helping one another as we go.

And then he promised us that even after the cameras leave, even when the spotlight no longer shines down on us, we won’t be alone in this fight. I think that’s what we needed to hear the most. The media moves on to the next story — it has to — and the world moves on with it. Disasters and suffering become white noise in our ears, and we forget that these are fellow humans who need a hand up, that someday it might be our turn.

Some have complained that Obama should have been here sooner. Some have even complained that he should not have come at all. But I think he got here right on time, with the message of hope we all needed to hear.

I have a list in my coat pocket of the original 232 names of missing people. Some have come forward to let us know they’re safe; some have been identified and won’t be coming back to us. Others are still missing.

I didn’t have it in me to throw away that list, and I won’t until every name is accounted for.

Lives have been lost, and hearts have been broken. We have all witnessed devastation and tragedy that can never be erased.  

But we will pick ourselves up and brush off, rebuild our city and put our lives back in place. Already, in one week, the progress we have made might surprise you. It will take years to get back to where we once were, but we will get there together.

After all, the sweetest wine comes from the grape that is crushed.

Please, don’t forget about us. 

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