Last May, the town of Joplin, Missouri, was hit by one of the worst tornados in US history — An EF-5 that tore through the middle of town, leaving a path of destruction a mile wide, and five miles long. I mean, there was virtually nothing left standing in the tornado zone, because is moved so slowly over the town. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out. A middle school and high school were lost. Hundreds of residents were killed – many who were caught off guard, because there was just a little bit of warning – but even with warning, in the path of a such a destructive force of nature, there wasn't much more anyone could do beyond getting into their basements and cellars, and praying.
I have an odd connection to Joplin. It's the town in Unwind that the character CyFi is trying to get to. Joplin is home for the unwound kid in his head. The town becomes the focal point for one of the most pivotal scenes for the book. I had never been there, and the reason I chose it was, like the tornado itself, pretty random. I needed a town in that general area, so I settled on Joplin, and did as much research as I could on the town, including familiarizing myself with the high school mascot, and which sports teams were the most successful. I had a fictional connection to Joplin, but fiction often feels very real.
When I heard about the disaster my heart went out to the people of Joplin. Usually I wait for invitations for author visits, but this time, just as school started in August, I sent out e-mails to all the school librarians in Joplin, asking if they would like an author visit, free of charge. Within hours I had responses from several of them saying they would love me to come, so we worked it out, and I spent a day in Joplin a few weeks ago.
I was met at the airport by Cari Rerat, the public library's teen librarian. Cari's home had been right in the tornado's path.
"We heard the sirens, and went down into our basement. When we came out, our entire neighborhood was gone," she told me. "What was left of the neighbor's house had been dropped on top of my car, in a very Oz-like way, and our house didn't have a single external wall left."
I could only stare dumbfounded, unable to imagine how it must feel to have your world literally torn away around you.
Cari, and school librarian Debbie Heim spent the following day shuttling me to four schools and the public library, for a total of six presentations. I have to tell you, I have never been so well received, and have never felt so rewarded as I did speaking to the kids of Joplin.
The high school population was divided, and relocated to an empty mall department store, and an older vacant school building downtown. The lost middle school was relocated to another temporary location, but otherwise it was business as usual. Life and learning goes on.
Debbie drove me through the tornado zone. Even though much of the rubble had been removed, the sheer scope of this swath of devastation is impossible to convey. She took me past the ruins of the high school – which was still being demolished. It was hard not to get emotional. Out front, the broken school sign had several iron letters missing from it. It said. "__OP__ HIGH SCHOOL." Some one had painted in an H, and an E, so it read "HOPE HIGH SCHOOL." I still get choked up thinking about it.
I heard many stories of tragedy and survival – but there was one thread that ran through all of it – Selflessness. The people of Joplin were not crushed by this crushing event, instead they rose up, and helped one another. It set the entire tone of the disaster relief effort – people coming from all over the nation to do whatever they could to help. I have never seen so much courage and strength shown in the face of misfortune.
Before I left, I was given, as a souvenir, a brick from the high school. It now occupies a place of honor on my special keepsake shelf, beside my piece of the Berlin Wall.
I found myself deeply inspired by the folks of Joplin. Visiting was an experience I will never forget.
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