As you already know I was in Joplin, Missouri, this weekend as a volunteer with the Service International Organization to help give a hand to the reconstruction efforts in a city brutally wrecked by an EF-5 tornado. Service International – a non-profit volunteer organization based in St. Louis – has been in Joplin since after days of the tragedy that killed over 117 people and has been helping homeowners sort through their debris and generally provide manpower to all in need. The other volunteers we met there, like us, came from all parts of the country… from Arkansas, California, Ohio, Oklahoma, Chicago etc and from various fields of endeavour: students, military, professionals, executives etc. I met a Nigerian of Indian origin – an undergrad of a university in Arkansas who speaks Nigerian Pidgin as his only Nigerian language, and English, along with two Indian languages. He grew up in Ikeja.
This weekend, according to the director, had one of the highest turnouts of volunteers in the last couple of weeks. We were almost forty. As the week ended, most of us have now returned to our bases leaving only a handful of people to continue the work. (The centre still needs as many people as possible who want to give their time and energy in service.) Looking around the areas of the disaster, walking amidst the debris, it is hard not to see the helplessness of humanity in the face of tragedy, and life as little moment of grace. Red inkmarks on abandoned buildings show the number of people who died or are missing in there. We saw many of those. A whole expanse of land as far as eyes can see lay spread in ruins as if a big war has just ravaged it. The town got very badly gutted and the heart breaks looking at it.
According to reports, some people were picked out of their houses while some were killed while hiding out in supposed safe spots in their homes. I heard the story of a young boy of nine who was snatched from a moving van from the hands of his father by the storm. The father lost use of both hands but survived. The boy did not. There was another story of the workers of Walmart who went, as instructed, to hide in the freezer until the storm subsided. The freezer was taken up by the tornado and has not been found since, along with its occupants. The witness were two girls who had run towards it but didn’t make it there in time before they were shut out. It cannot be overstated that what pictures show of this wreckage is nothing compared to what it is when actually seen with eyes. It can only be imagined what it must have been like when it happened. And it all lasted barely thirty minutes.
The SI Relief Centre is located in a church premises with feeding and accommodation provided courtesy of donors, volunteers, the US Marines, the Red Cross, and many others. It welcomes as many more people as are interested in giving them a hand from now until their work is done, which won’t be in a while. The accommodation was comfortable and the daily interaction with other volunteers was a delight. On Friday night, we sat around a fire in the courtyard and told stories of what brought us to Joplin after introducing ourselves. Mine was that I was in a similar tornado that nearly got me killed, and I survived.
We spent Saturday on the field, working. The site was a farm owned by a man of about seventy-five whose whole property was leveled by the tornado. He didn’t speak much as he rode his cart around inspecting what we were doing. And what we were doing – simple as it sounds – was to separate wooden planks from the roofing sheets so that it would be easy to destroy or recycle as the case may be. There must have been about four houses torn down in the premises. We worked in groups on the wreckages from around nine when we arrived there until around five when we left. Sunday, after a short church service where we were feted as new comers, we had lunch and set out homewards. Others remained there to continue the afternoon shift until late into the evening. But even at that level of work – fixing one person’s property per day – it would still take years to rebuild all that has been destroyed in the town. Some volunteers have been coming there since the centre was set up. It is an impressive work that is being done there, and it could do with plenty more.
This post is getting long but I’ll tell you how I got that opening at the back of my t-shirt in the picture above. I had a long plank of wood that I had to toss in a pile. And like I did with the others before it, I threw it with two hands like a javelin. It usually would just fly over my head straight into the pile along with the rest. On this one, I had misjudged the length and the weight of the plank and its tail end landed on my then already bent back, grazing me roughly as it went into the pile like a missile. I touched it and saw how lucky I was. It had pierced opened not just my general issue orange shirt but also the black one that I wore underneath it, but my skin was safe. A good thing there was no nail there at the end of the plank. By the time we got home in the evening, we were all tired, yet energized by the fact that we had made someone very happy, and he did not have to pay us.
There are a few more things that I will tell you as soon as I can. For now, I should sleep. But this I know: it was a humbling, moving experience.
(Photos by Mafoya Dossoumon)