It started with multiple heartfelt posts on my Facebook page and Twitter account: "tornado in Joplin" ... "massive destruction" ... "pray for the city." It was stunning to see the horrific scenes on news coverage that evening and the next morning. I attended college at Missouri State University in Springfield, just an hour east of Joplin, and have traveled through the area the tornado decimated many times. Places I remember passing in my car were leveled and unrecognizable. It's chilling to think of the incredible power housed in a storm that can turn an assumed fortress of concrete and steel like a medical center or a high school into a helpless pile of rubble.
Kansas residents live with tornadoes. It's just a fact of life in this state, much like blizzards in North Dakota or hurricanes in Florida. If you're a resident, you learn from a very young age, or very shortly after you move here, how to stay as safe as possible in the face of such awesome power. Find an interior room (a closet, bathroom, hallway, or basement — if you're lucky) on the lowest level, away from windows. Pull a mattress over your head. Have an emergency supply of water and a weather radio handy. Pray like hell.
The Wednesday after the Joplin tornado, I needed to run an errand about four miles from my house. It was raining, but the clouds were just light gray, not the greenish churning mess that usually announces conditions favorable for a tornado. I drove through the sprinkles, pulled up to the store, got out and ran inside. As I reached the door, an employee met me and announced that a tornado had touched down just a few miles south of the store and the sirens had just finished going off. Everyone in the store was heading to the back bathroom to take cover.
It was stunning to think that in just five to ten minutes' time, I might be huddled in the back of a store with five strangers, like so many of the victims of the Joplin storm, while nature carved a path through a heavily populated and busy retail area. We were so very lucky. The funnel clouds stayed just to the east. We watched from the store window as time after time the swirling clouds tried to touch the ground as they moved north.
We heard the updates on the radio as they tracked the storm's location. Fourteen separate touchdowns, including one just two large suburban blocks away from where we stood by the big plate glass windows of the paint store, and multiple rotations over downtown Kansas City with its skyscrapers, convention centers and entertainment districts. I wondered on my drive home after the excitement subsided and the sun came out, just how the area would have been affected if a monster like Joplin's had roared through, a mile wide and nearly seven miles long, leaving the familiar topography of my known world a twisted mess.
A scary weather year
We've had a rough spring tornado season in America this year. I hear people wonder aloud about why there seem to be so many more tornadoes and why they seem to be so much more destructive than in the past. Scientists and weathermen say that, actually, this year has been pretty average as far as the number of twisters, but the storms have hit more populated areas. Most tornadoes touch down over farmland, destroying a barn or ripping up a grove of trees in a meadow. For some reason, this season's storms have come down over Tuscaloosa, St. Louis, Joplin, Nashville — cities and suburbs, instead of rural counties, creating way more need for dollars and manpower to rebuild and recover.
It's too early for Joplin to even begin thinking about how they're going to rebuild the town structurally. The people there need time to heal and find the strength to rebuild their lives. But my fervent wish, not only for Joplin but for all the towns and cities that have been scarred by the weather this year, including my beloved St. Louis, which I still claim as home, is that they take a moment to consider their situation as an opportunity. An opportunity to rethink, to plan, to correct the sprawl that has forced people to become dependent on gas-guzzling cars, to become cut off from their neighbors by cul-de-sacs and four lane intersections, and that has encouraged the preference for convenient chain stores instead of locally sourced goods.
This is an opportunity to put thought into energy-efficient homes and businesses, built with green products, that complement and work with — rather than subdue — the surrounding landscape.
Green rebuilding in aptly-named Greesburg, Kans.
Another Kansas town destroyed by a tornado four years ago this month, Greensburg, has proven that it can be done and done well. Greensburg decided to rebuild completely green after the entire town was wiped off the map. All new public buildings must be built to LEED platinum specifications. Many residents went the extra mile to add green features to their newly rebuilt homes. Greensburg can offer a lot of experience and advice to the shellshocked communities now facing a daunting effort to bring themselves back to normal.