Dispatch from Joplin: One month later

Saturday, June 25, 2011 | 6:39 p.m. CDT; updated 6:57 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 25, 2011

JOPLIN — I returned to Joplin a few days ago, one month after the storm that turned our little part of the world upside down.

I came back to attend a funeral. It was not a tornado-related death, as many people asked. I could only shrug and shake my head — I, too, was surprised that people still died peacefully in their sleep.

Walking the streets of Columbia for the past three weeks has been such a reprieve, passing buildings standing wholly intact, the only complaints from people on the sidewalk fueled by the cicadas and the heat.

I know it was naïve to think that things in Joplin would be vastly better by now. My grandmother would call this wishful thinking; my sister would call it denial. I wasn’t expecting everything to be back in its place with a pretty red bow on top — I’m fully aware it will take years for that — but I wasn’t expecting it to still be so ruined.

Don’t get me wrong, there are signs of progress everywhere. The Home Depot lot is entirely cleared and a temporary building stands in the parking lot.

When you walk through a residential neighborhood, past every few wrecked houses you come across a concrete slab, patiently waiting for a new house to be built atop it so life for at least one family can return to normal.

Everywhere you turn, story-high piles of debris sit where a home once stood, teddy bears and bathtubs and remnants of past lives stacked in heaps that will eventually be hauled off and dumped, burned or recycled.

But there are still areas where it looks as if nothing has been touched since the tornado ripped through them. And even when I thought I had seen it all, I turn another corner and find myself staring out at destruction for as far as I can see.

As my friend put it when he returned to Joplin last night, “the drive through town isn’t any easier than it was three weeks ago.”

There are new normals in Joplin now, adjustments and shifts that everyone is adapting to.

The sound of excavators and bulldozers has become a dull hum in our ears. You might have to go to a different sanctuary for your Sunday morning church service, drive across town to find an ATM or get lost in the aisles of an unfamiliar grocery store. It’s eerily dark and silent at night, and a blanket of stillness envelops the town when the sun goes down.

The most poignant thought I’ve heard so far came from my Aunt Gwynn. She used to look around while she was driving, she said, but now she keeps her eyes trained straight ahead. I thought it was to avoid taking in all the destruction, but she’s merely offering victims the one kindness she can: privacy.

“You don’t want to be looking into their bedrooms,” she said.

We are one month into the marathon to right our part of the world. It’s so easy to look around at all the work left to complete and feel discouraged, but then you get a phone call like the one I received yesterday.

My friend Andrea, who lost her home in the storm, called me first thing in the morning, her voice lively and spirited.

“Have you seen the trees?” she asked.

She was referring to the stripped down trunks that looked as if they’d been through the wood chipper. Their branches have been snapped off, but bright green leaves are sprouting straight from the trunks.

“They’re coming back,” she said. “Everything’s not dead.”

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