On Saturday I joined a crew from our congregation and headed to Joplin to help in the relief efforts. David and I drove there in his pickup truck. I was glad we were alone when we found our way into the center of the area hit by the tornado. I thought I was prepared after seeing the photos and video on TV all week. But nothing prepared me for the actual sight of miles and miles of devastation. Miles and miles of houses reduced to rubble. Very few had even one wall still standing. Cars crushed like Coke cans and carelessly tossed like pieces of litter. Electric lines snaking and coiled on the ground by the roadsides. Naked trees stripped of leaves and bark. All I could do was cry and wonder how anyone escaped alive.
We drove to a house in an area that was one block away from the worst-hit area. That one block was the difference between matchstick rubble and houses that were still standing. A lady named Viviana and her preschooler waited out the storm in an inner closet. They emerged alive, their house damaged but structurally sound. A block away the stories were much more tragic.
Viviana had windows blown out on two sides of her house. The Mt. Vernon crew had put a tarp on her roof and cleared fallen trees out of her yard on Thursday. The job for six of us women on Saturday was to help her get the interior cleaned up and livable. Glass was everywhere, and rain had soaked the carpets and furniture. My brother had brought a generator, so we cleaned up the glass and vacuumed the carpets with a ShopVac. Mud splattered the living room walls, and we cleaned them off as best we could. The living room furniture was ruined and had to be carried out to the curb to be picked up by the trash crews.
Viviana's son Fredy uses a small enclosed porch as his playroom. The shattered window had scattered glass shards all over the floor, and most of the toys were drenched. We started taking the toys outside and sorting what was salvageable from what would have to be thrown away. Fredy had been gone for the first hour of our work, and when he came home he headed straight for his playroom. He eyed the bare spots silently as his mother explained that his toys would have to be washed and that we were going to help. Without a word he began gathering up armloads of small items that had been kept dry by a plastic bin and carefully carried them out to the porch and piled them up. He made trip after trip, adding to his little piles in silent determination.
Then tragedy struck. His favorite toy, a maroon stuffed dinosaur whose electronic innards made it roar and move, was found soaked and still. Viviana pronounced it a discard. Fredy's big brown eyes dropped to the ground. His chin trembled. He tried really hard not to cry in front of these strangers. But it was the last straw for Fredy. The tears fell, the silent sobs became uncontrolled weeping, and no one could console Fredy. His mother's promises to buy him a new dinosaur were useless. And we six other women stood around Fredy and Viviana and tried not to cry with him.
My sister-in-law Carol grabbed up the dinosaur with one hand and hugged Fredy with the other. "Fredy, I'm going to put it right out here in the sunlight and we'll just see if we can't get it dry and maybe it will work again." Fredy hid his face on his mother's shoulder, finally gaining control of himself and reluctantly releasing the dinosaur to Carol's kind hands.
I wonder how many scenes like this are happening every day in Joplin. How many Fredys did the tornado leave behind? Fredys who can't understand an EF5 storm and only know that their dinosaurs are wet and life will never be the same?
I just had to grab my broom and cleaning rags and keep moving.