Finals are right around the corner here at Missouri State in Springfield, Mo. and while I’m looking forward to wrapping up my junior year of college, I’m a bit apprehensive about what lies in store for me 13 days from now.
I’m from Neosho, Mo. and live approximately 15 miles south of the city of Joplin.
You probably know of Joplin because it was devastated by an EF5 tornado on May 22, 2011, killing 161 people.
But I know of Joplin because it’s where I went out for dinner with my family, bought clothes for school, visited my friend in the hospital after giving birth to her first child, went to prom and essentially, grew-up.
At 5:41 p.m. on May 22 of last year, I was working at the Neosho Cinema Six when the tornado touched the ground at the edge of the western city limits of Joplin.
My manager, coworkers and I sat in almost complete silence, listening to the police scanner on one of our phones while the sky outside turned black, green and finally orange.
We knew the damage was bad. The reports were all over the news that St. John’s Regional Medical Center had been destroyed, along with thousands of other structures, and that the death toll was unknown.
But it wasn’t until the following day when I drove to the city in the pouring rain to cover the aftermath for Thomson Reuters that it really hit me.
This was a tragedy — a horrific natural disaster — and I was witnessing it not through the TV screen, or in the newspaper, but with my own eyes.
It wasn’t in some far off nation across the ocean, but right there in my little corner of Southwest Missouri where bad things aren’t supposed to happen.
And no matter how many times I closed my eyes, or pretended that what I was seeing was a bad dream, it wasn’t going to go away.
The Joplin tornado and the events that followed it changed my life.
For the first time, I knew that people were depending on me as a journalist to share their stories, to bear witness to their lives and to give them information that could help them.
I went to my first real press conference and prayed to God, “Please don’t let anyone I know be on this,” when a sheet was handed out to myself and the other media professionals present of the names of those lost in the storm.
I witnessed first-hand the power of the human spirit in my best friend who, along with his family, took part in search and rescue efforts until he was literally too exhausted to continue.
I learned the power of Mother Nature and that when she strikes down, there is nothing we can do to stop her. She reigns supreme.
But most importantly, I experienced compassion. Many of us will never know what it’s like to lose all of our belongings, our home, our place of employment or our loved ones in a natural disaster. But after the Joplin tornado, thousands of volunteers flocked to the city to help in any way they could.
These volunteers fed, clothed, housed and grieved with those who had lost everything. They came from across Missouri, from Washington, D.C. and from around the world to show the people of Joplin they weren’t alone.
In the aftermath of last summer, Joplin has begun to recover. Walmart, Home Depot, Academy Sports and many of the other businesses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. New homes have sprung up across the landscape of the city.
And the sign that marked the exit to Interstate 44 for me to get from Joplin to Springfield to attend Missouri State that was destroyed has been replaced.
But there is still work to do and we can all — no matter if we’re in Missouri or not — participate, and the first step is in taking note of the anniversary of the tragedy.
On May 22 at 2:30 p.m. Joplin will host the Day of Unity with a Walk of Unity through the city to trace the path of the tornado and to commemorate the progress the city has made in the past year.
At 5:41 p.m., the time the tornado struck the ground and began its path of destruction, there will be a moment of silence to remember the 161 individuals who lost their lives in the storm.
Please, if you can make it to Joplin, participate in the Walk of Unity. And if you can’t make it to the city, please, wherever you are on the anniversary, participate in the moment of silence.
Remember those individuals who will never be reunited with their families and whose lives, like mine, were changed forever by an EF5 tornado May 22, 2011 at 5:41 p.m.
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