DISPATCH FROM JOPLIN: We can be ourselves again

Saturday, July 2, 2011 | 6:02 p.m. CDT; updated 5:47 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 4, 2011
Weeks after an EF5 tornado ripped through the city of Joplin, the removal of debris continues. Public Works Director David Hertzberg said the city is working its way to a better future.

JOPLIN — While doing business in Columbia, I came to dread the look from people across the counter as I handed over my driver’s license and they read my Joplin address. A faint hesitation, then apprehension in their eyes before they asked me, hesitantly, if everything was OK  back at home.

How do you answer that question?

The obvious: No, everything is not OK. People died, homes were leveled, and everyone — and I mean everyone — is mourning the loss of something, or worse, someone.

The optimistic: Yes, we’re fine. We’ve bonded together, we’ve helped one another up; we’re rebuilding and we’ll be back on our feet in no time. Our city will be stronger than ever.

The grateful, but guilt-ridden: My house didn’t get a scratch. Neither did a single member of my family. And though a handful of my friends lost everything but the clothes on their backs, I didn’t lose a single one of them. 

Then there’s the exhausted response, where all you can do is smile half-heartedly and nod.

When it comes down to it, the answer is:  E — all of the above.

I want to explain to them what we were before the tornado, and how odd it is that a mere two months ago, most people just nodded vaguely when I said I was from Joplin. Now their eyes widen and they sometimes give me a sympathetic pat on the hand, and it makes me wonder if we will always be associated with that day and that storm.

Before May 22, we were content in our small Midwestern anonymity. We spent our Friday nights at high school football games and our Sunday mornings at church. Our sports bars were wise to hang MU, KU, OU and Arkansas paraphernalia because they’d lose three-fourths of their business if they picked a corner. We’ve accepted the fact that it ices more than it snows in the winter; sneaking out to IHOP at 2 a.m. is a rite of passage for teenagers; and no matter which side of town you’re from, we all meet up on Range Line for dinner.

As for now, we’ve traded in our anonymity for a piece of fame for which no one really wants to be famous. Our town is sepia-toned and blown into pieces. We’ve been shaken, unnerved and overwhelmed by the support that’s poured in from people across the country — across the world, even — who may have never known we were here in the first place.

But what we’re all aching to know now is: What’s our future look like?

Slowly but surely, we’re picking up and rebuilding. The green is coming back on the trees. We’re doing the best we can to right our world.

But even if you put all the buildings back where they’re supposed to be, is that good enough? Will the people come back? Some have already left because they couldn’t wait for a new job or for a new house to be built. Some of the people I’ve spoken to who lived through it said they can’t come back, that it will never be the same for them. They’ve lost neighbors and friends and seen things they’ll never be able to forget.

Will any one of us ever be able to walk into the new Home Depot, built on top of the same ground where so many people were killed? Will we be able to eat at Pizza Hut without thinking of Christopher Lucas, the father of two who died to save strangers?

Or maybe we’ll be stronger than anyone ever could have imagined. We’ll go back to our Friday night football games and Sunday mornings at church, and we’ll drive around town and point to all the progress and feel comforted in knowing that, while things may never be the same, we can be ourselves again. We may never sink back into anonymity, but we’ll be grateful to the outsiders who left their mark on our new world.

I wish I had the answers. We all do.

But I do know this: Sometimes the answer is a compilation of all the possibilities.

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Melinda Nichols July 2, 2011 | 10:48 p.m.

Beautifully written. I'm not a resident of Joplin, but am there often, and was in the IHOP when the tornado blew the building apart over out heads. I really enjoyed reading this piece from the heart of a Joplin resident.

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