May 22, 2011, was a beautiful spring Sunday until the sky started to darken as early evening arrived. The sky was an omen for what was to come within the hour — an EF5 tornado that bore its way through the center of Joplin, starting near St. John’s Hospital on the west and continuing through tiny Duquesne as it tore east, ultimately traveling 13 miles.
Within hours of the nation’s deadliest tornado— it claimed 161 lives and destroyed about 7,500 dwellings and more than 550 businesses — volunteers were there. It is estimated that more than 130,000 volunteers from around the country and even the world have been to Joplin in the year following the tornado. And they still come.
First, they searched for survivors — and sometimes found bodies. They fed, clothed, housed and prayed with those who lost family and friends, homes and neighborhoods, jobs and joy. They cleaned up debris, helped homeowners fill out necessary paperwork to get assistance, found people places to live, held fundraisers, treated physical and emotional wounds, and much more.
The donations came in, so volunteers sorted and warehoused the items so they could be distributed to those in need. The American Red Cross, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, Convoy of Hope, Ozarks Food Harvest and Salvation Army are just a few of the local organizations that arrived within 24 hours and, in most cases, are still working in Joplin.
Churches sent teams to help. They came from around Joplin and from far away. Some had hammers and saws, others doughnuts and coffee, but everyone came to help.
The government was there, too. State and federal funds were granted to help with recovery efforts. Teams of government workers came to help people sign up for various assistance programs.
Joplin officials reported the city has so far received donated resources and volunteer hours totaling $17.7 million, the largest amount in the state’s history.
AmeriCorps, which was there within hours of the tornado, is now organizing volunteer efforts for the community, saving the city millions of dollars in disaster relief costs. The agency reports 359 members have served Joplin, donating nearly 77,000 hours of work. In turn, AmeriCorps volunteers managed more than 75,000 volunteers, and 2,222 volunteer groups, who wanted to make a difference and ended up providing more than 520,000 hours of volunteer efforts.
Our hearts were broken on May 22, and we continue to grieve the terrible losses the tornado caused. On Tuesday, we will remember that pain along with everyone else.
But our hearts are also lifted when we consider the response from people in Joplin, around Missouri, across the country and even from other countries. We are touched by the courage of so many residents, impressed with the resilience of the city, and amazed by how far Joplin has come toward recovery.
The entire nation shares both the pain and the pride. President Barack Obama spoke to the people of Joplin a week after the tornado touched down. As the president joined Gov. Jay Nixon and other leaders at a memorial service for those who lost their lives in the storm, he promised support for the southwest Missouri community.
“I promise you your country will be there with you every single step of the way,” he said.
The country came through on that promise — not just the government, but the thousands of volunteers and donors who, like the president, recognized the heart of the nation was touched by the crisis and would rise up to respond.
The president will be in the city again Monday, speaking at the Joplin High School graduation commencement. It is fitting that he speak at the graduation because it was on May 22, 2011, that the last senior class graduated, leaving the ceremony only to face the storm. Some didn’t make it home.
It is also fitting that a year later, the same import is being placed on this national tragedy. Joplin is not finished mourning, nor is it finished rebuilding, and neither are the rest of us.
Copyright Springfield News-Leader. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.