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After the Storm

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It was graduation night on May 22, 2011, when Joplin High School and more than 7,500 other buildings were destroyed by one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history, claiming 161 lives. Last night, on the eve of the tornado's anniversary, President Obama told Joplin High School's 2012 graduating seniors that "the story of Joplin is the story of what happened the next day, and the days and weeks that followed."

The mask and the sunglasses help. Long sleeves, closed toe shoes, a hat on your head and sturdy gloves on your hands. Protective wear, meant to keep what’s outside from seeping in.

“If you find pictures, a driver’s license, social security cards, passports, papers you think might be important, bring them to someone who has this A, the AmeriCorp logo, on our T-shirt. If you find a personal belonging that you think might be valuable, jewelry, a stuffed animal, a collectible of some kind, put it aside. When we clear the foundation, we will leave those items here. If the family comes back, they can find them. Any questions?”

I had questions, multitudes of questions. But I knew the 22-year-old AmeriCorp worker didn’t have the answers. He had shovels and rakes and wheelbarrows, bottles of water and reminders to watch for heat stroke and nails. He had a walkie-talkie, a quick smile and a learned acclimation to his surroundings. Another day, another shredded, torn to bits home that needed wrestled to the curb.

The randomness of the rubble was startling. A necktie wrapped around a box of Bisquick. Chunks of chimney, wall and chain link fence buried under layers of insulation, clothes, shingles and toys. I picked up a chunk of splintered wood. A piece of a door or maybe a cabinet, it was hard to tell. A picture frame without a picture and frozen waffles still in the wax papery, plastic liner were lying underneath. Had the frame ever held a picture? Was someone considering a waffle when the tornado hit, or did the wind truly tear it from its box inside the freezer? It was hard to tell.

Among all the pieces there were puzzle pieces, hundreds of jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered across the ground. Like a constant reminder that this home could never be put back together again, something or someone would always be missing.

We worked side by side until the Red Cross truck rolled up. Calling to us from a bullhorn. Demanding we stop, take a break, drink some water. We pulled the filthy masks away for the first time and searched each other’s faces. The man who had tirelessly dumped the wheelbarrow I kept filling said a shy hello. I looked into bright blue eyes, realizing they belonged to the woman who silently raked piles of rubble into my shovel. The unsteady smile from the teenager who helped me carry a portion of wall to the curb formed a lump in my throat. He was just a boy. In the hours before, we were moving parts, willing hands and arms and legs, working together to clear a lot. In those moments, standing by the truck with its bright red cross, we became a people, sharing puzzle-sized pieces of our lives.

“I’m from Kansas City, here with my church.”

“I’m here with my college, from Chicago, it’s my tenth day.”

I met a couple that lived 40 miles south of Joplin. In the 34 days since the tornado hit, they had spent 26 of them in the field, on a work site, clearing debris. It was like an addiction. The woman, a retired schoolteacher, said she dreamed about it every night. She was always picking up and clearing debris, even in her sleep.

That afternoon we walked toward the parking lot of the Joplin High School, or what had been the Joplin High School. “It hasn’t been touched”, the retired schoolteacher said. “They haven’t even started on the high school, except for that.” She pointed to a low brick wall that remained intact on the corner. At one time, it had read JOPLIN HIGH SCHOOL. The J, along with the L, I and N were missing. But instead of leaving it to read OP HIGH SCHOOL, someone had placed a duct tape H before the OP and an E after. HOPE HIGH SCHOOL. That picture was sweeping the nation. Seven pieces of duct tape, placed with care on an old brick wall was inspiring others to come, to stand where I was standing, to look at a landscape you pray you’ll never see again, but you know the world will.

It will stick with me. The mask and the sunglasses help, but thank God, hope has a way of seeping in.

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