Yesterday I took my first trip to Joplin, Missouri since the tornado ravaged their community a little over a week ago.
Caelan went last week with a group from our church and he's wanted to go back every day since. Will hasn't gone (I haven't let him) and he's been ticked off about it. He said every time he wants to help no one will let him but when he doesn't, we make him!
My little sister works on one of the rescue units for the Kansas City Fire Department. She was called in to help the night the tornado hit. She is a tenacious girl. She's been through swift water rescue training. I have a photo of her rapelling a building from 12 stories high. She's around the toughest of men all day, proving herself worthy of working side-by-side with them. One of her texts to my mom when she arrived at the scene that night started out with the word Momma.
I arrived more than a week after the clean up had begun and my heart sank. My friend Colleen, who had helped clean up with Caelan the week prior, said, "This is nothing. These are the good houses. They're still standing."
I took my camera with me but Caelan had told me about a sign he'd seen when he was there last week. It read, "Put down your camera and lend a hand." Colleen had discouraged the boys from being obvious about taking photos with their phones the week before. And knowing my strong desire to not just snap a photo and move along but to document all the little details around me, as hard as it was to do, I left my camera packed away when we were at the church and what was left of the homes we were sent to. My purpose for the day was to help. The photos I share in this post were taken through the tinted windows of a Mustang as we were driving. They are not the best quality. But I felt I needed share a bit of what I saw and hope that it inspires people to help.
We checked in at Wildwood Baptist Church and started by helping unload a trailer packed full of donations from Kansas City and a small pick-up of local donations. The amount of donated items is staggering. I only saw what one church has received and I was astonised by human generosity. Box after box of everything from toothpaste to baby food. And the water donations. Absoultely unreal. And it's not just donations for those who lost their homes and their possessions. The donations are there for the volunteers who come to help. There is no rationing. There are people driving up and down the streets for the sole purpose of making sure the volunteers have plenty of bottles of water and gloves to protect their hands. There are free, hot meals available everywhere. They've even thought to provide sunscreen to volunteers. And just like a mom, they'll argue with you if you say you don't need it. They are truly grateful for those who have come to help them.
What surprised me most was the smiles. I expected to see forlorn faces. The devastation they've endured would justify it. Before I went, I heard many people say the pictures you see do not accurately represent what you see when you're there in person. And it's true. It does something to you when you sit at the edge of the destruction and look out at the incredible, terrifying width of the the path of the tornado. But there are people everywhere smiling. People whose homes have been destroyed, people who lost their furniture, their photos, their clothing. They have nothing left yet as they were coming into the church in need of food and they were smiling.
There are signs everywhere. Some are emotionally charged because of the unfortunate reality that at times like this, people loot. Some are lighthearted. Most that I saw, or at least those that stood out to me, were those made by people who came through this with their faith in God still intact. In spite of losing everything they possess, they still praise Him.
Even the photos people are sharing show faith is still strong. The only thing I've seen more photos of than what remains of this church is St. John's Hospital. There is total destruction here and people find comfort in the midst of it.
A photo of St. John's Hospital that doesn't even come close to showing the magnitude of the damage. It has been reported that it will most likely be deemed unsalvagable. But the flag hung from it shows the resillience of the residents.
Caelan and I discussed whether or not sharing these photos as black and white was deceptive. They are admittedly more dramatic in black and white. He said, "Well the newspaper would do it." I didn't want to do it just because someone in the media would do it! I decided to go ahead and show some of them in black and white because of my feelings that I shared earlier. Photos do not do justice to the reality of what you see. If taking away the colors that distract from the destruction in my photos can bring you any closer to the feeling you have when you see it in person, the color goes. You see house after house like this.
You see cars like this. Their tops are smashed. Or their tops are gone. Or they are upside down. Or they are piled atop one another. They have debris sticking through the windows.
In the heart of the detruction, you see tree after tree like this. The winds were so powerful they stripped the trees not only of their branches and leaves, but also their bark.
You also see trees like this. The tops of them are wrapped in pieces of metal. My sister saw a tree with a boat wrapped around the top. I saw one with a mattress and many with clothes waving in the wind from the very tops.
You also see a lot of this. These men are volunteering with Samaritan's purse, as you can see from their t-shirts. They want people to know they are an organization with a heart for reaching out to those in need. They want people to remember them in their time of need. There are plenty of groups like this without coordinating t-shirts too, though. At the first house we went to we worked with a group of about 10 people who showed up on their own. One of the ladies, who moved and piled brush with the rest of us while wearing a skirt, was a nurse who had provided first aid to the resident a few days earlier. He had dislocated his shoulder and had rubbed so many blisters on his feet while trying to clean things up that he couldn't wear shoes. He said he needed help so she called her friends and they came. When we all arrived, as he stood behind the roofless home he had helped his father and uncles build 50 years ealier, he was smiling and laughing. Volunteers had given him hope that his life could be put back together.
They really do appreciate every bit of effort being put forth to help them. If you live within a reasonable driving distance, I hope you understand how much you are needed and lend a day of your time to keep the hope of these people going. They cannot do this alone. If you think you are not physically able to haul brush and move construction debris, there are other ways you can help. People are needed to cook meals, to organize donations, to help match volunteers up with jobs that need to be done. There is fan page called Joplin Tornado Info on Facebook that has a lot of helpful resources for getting those who are interested in volunteering matched up with a church or organization in need of your help. I promise you will not regret making the time to help. You will leave with a very humbling, meaningful day in your memory.