“Now you go through St. Louie Joplin, Missouri Oklahoma City looks mighty pretty…” — From “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”, Bobby Troupe.
On Sunday, May 22, 2011, a massive storm system and tornado devastated the town Joplin, Missouri — population 49,000. The same storm system devastated the small town of El Reno in Canadian County, Oklahoma.
The tornado, which struck around dinner time, crushed nearly a third of the city. It pounded about 2,000 buildings, knocked out power and cellphone service for many, and damaged water treatment and sewage plants. The tangled remains of cars and trucks were overturned and thrown against buildings and trees. Some blocks were jagged mounds of debris, while others were stripped to utter emptiness: just foundations of homes and tree trunks — no leaves, no branches, no bark.
The tornado did catastrophic damage to a Wal-Mart, a high school and a nursing home apartment building, and ripped through the places that exist to respond to emergencies, like a fire station, where a brick wall was crumbled over a fire truck, and the hospital, whose sign was reported to have been spotted miles from Joplin.
It was the deadliest single tornado in more than half a century, and it adds to a season of particularly deadly tornadoes. Storms in the Midwest and South have killed hundreds of people in the last two months, and left millions of dollars of damage behind. As of this writing the officials in Joplin have confirmed 200 people died in the storms. El Reno got off easier with only 6 reported dead.
The latest tornado was part of a weather system in which cold and warm fronts crashed together throughout the middle of the country, creating conditions that can spawn “supercell” thunderstorms like the one here. Click here for an interactive map of the supercells.
His story is not about supercells or storms. It’s not about devastation and the power of nature. It’s about the people of Joplin and El Reno, towns I have been in.
Three years ago while driving from Chicago to Los Angeles on Historic Route 66 I passed through both towns. They were typical Midwestern towns that had once been on the “mother road” so glorified in Bobby Troupe’s song. They had old buildings, old houses, old streets and a history of once being stop-overs on Route 66. They also had Wal-Marts, Walgreens fast food restaurants and small cafes. They were Americana. After the construction of Interstate 44 these towns saw little growth and the businesses and cafes were only visited by locals and history buffs, like me, traveling Route 66.
I recall the Sunday my wife and I were passing through Joplin on our way to our bed and breakfast hotel (the Café on the Route) in Baxter Springs, Kansas, just over the border with Missouri. I received a cell on my cell phone from the owner of the hotel informing that they were in Joplin for the day and would not be there to greet us at the hotel. She told us not to worry about registration as she had our credit card reservation and gave us our room number. She said the key would be in the mail box by the front door.
When we arrived at the hotel it was closed and dark, but sure enough the key was where she said it would be and we found our room all made up for us. This is known as Midwestern trust, something you will not find in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles of San Francisco.
These people know their neighbors and take care of themselves. They don’t look to Washington for handouts and help. When an emergency arises act as neighbors. In spite of the devastation we saw no pictures of looting or people carrying TV sets out of the wrecked Wal-Mart as we have seen in so many examples of disastrous in cities like New Orleans or Detroit.
We saw neighbors comforting and helping their neighbors. There we no cries of “where’s FEMA or where’s the President. People from states like Texas, Kansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas to help their neighbors who were in trouble. There were no pictures of people standing in six inches of water waiting to be rescued. Their neighbors took care of them. That’s the way real Americans are.
On one video clip I saw a man with one arm helping load food stuffs and medical supplies for the victims. I saw people hugging one another and holding babies. I saw hospitals with broken windows still functioning. And I saw people searching for loved ones and their pets in the debris.
I saw churches that had been severely damaged acting as rescue centers and aid stations. It mattered not if you were a member of the church or not.
During the Japanese earthquake and tsunami we were amazed at the cooperation and discipline exhibited by the Japanese. Commenters made remarks on how well the Japanese were behaving during their tragedy and how we do not see this in America. Well, I suggest they take a good Joplin, Missouri. They might be pleasantly surprised. There is another America in fly-over country, an America of people who believe in each other.