Joplin and the best things in life

Information can shake you in your boots and then again it can absolve your fears. And sometimes, it’s a catalyst for action.

Last night as the news from Joplin, Mo., unfolded after a tornado tore a six-mile hole through the heart of the city about dinner time, I immediately scoured the Internet for information because I have a cousin who lives in Joplin. The scope of the devastation hadn’t yet made it to television news. Producers, I’m sure, were scrambling to bring it to viewers, but I couldn’t wait. I was worried about Sarah and her family.  I found her house on Google maps and then tried plotting the path of the tornado through the neighborhood with what information I could glean from local news outlets, weather sites and Twitter feeds. Most of the destruction was along Ridgeline Road and north of the I-41.  That was encouraging; Sarah lives south of the interstate. But St. John’s Medical Center sustained a direct hit. Her husband is a doctor and her daughter, pinned on Saturday, is a brand new nurse. Were they there?

I dug out her phone number, but telephone service was down. Texting — I read somewhere —was the best means of communicating in an emergency, but I only had the number for her landline.

More digging. I found the Jasper County emergency services broadband feed. It crackled off and on with clinical and efficient messages. I was struck by the calm in their voices, the sense of purpose in the midst of absolute chaos. I listened, riveted: “Traffic is flooding in here. Can someone stop it up there?”  “We can’t get through the streets; can you give us an alternate route?”  “Where’s the shelter being set up?” An accompanying Facebook page added more to the rescuers discussion. Here I learned that J-4 was a code name for someone who had not survived. Rescuers, referencing J-4, were asking, “Where is the temporary morgue?”

The tornado was “rain-wrapped,” the worse kind, meaning it couldn’t be seen coming. Only felt. All the bits and pieces of information pelting the broadbands were frightening knowing that Sarah and her family were there. I sent her a Facebook message, not knowing if she had power.

As I watched the destruction coalesce across news outlets and blogs and finally on television, I thought about all that was lost. I am certain that many people in Joplin who escaped with their lives would eventually agree that the things — even the precious things — are replaceable. Some things like photographs may not be, but their loss pales in comparison to lives.

It should always be all about lives.

We graduate from college. We pack up our diplomas and our graduation gifts. We sail off on a journey to build successful careers that we too often measure by what we own, by what privileges we earn, or by what we “have.” But in the end, an education measured only by power or wealth or accomplishment isn’t worth very much during times like Sunday in Joplin. If our educations, on the other hand, prompt us to roll up our sleeves like the citizens of Missouri, particularly the search, rescue and emergency people, our diplomas mean something very different.

Being the change sometimes means picking up the pieces after a disaster. Ultimately it means understanding that it’s the things that we can do without; it’s the people we can’t. I’m reminded of the massacre at Virginia Tech and JMU’s response. The university sent teams to Blacksburg to help. After the tornadoes in Virginia recently, I am sure Madison people were helping their neighbors. Jon McNamara (’05) with the Red Cross in Virginia certainly was, and soon I’ll share with you some of his perspectives. This week Madison magazine heard from Justin Constantine (’92) who has been appointed to a congressionally-mandated committee on wounded warriors. It is not the prestige, though, that excites Justin. “It is great to have the opportunity to be part of the solution,” he wrote. Be the Changer Anne Stewart, professor of graduate psychology, knows this too through her work with crisis intervention. There are hundreds of others who everyday take seriously the charge and responsibility to Be the Change.

Last night in Joplin, rescuers dug out the living trapped from under collapsed roofs and overturned cars. They rescued the wounded from rubble-filled basements, and they comforted those without bearings or belongings. If we respond as they did last night to everyday needs, then we validate education. And we change the world.

This morning, to my great relief, I heard from Sarah. She wasn’t in the path of the storm, but her daughter and son-in-law were not so fortunate. They lived in the path of the destruction. Their home and their cars are gone. Destroyed.  Nothing is left. They, however, were not at home when the tornado hit. They are safe.

Relieved, I sent Sarah a reply: “The best things in life aren’t things.” No, they certainly are not.

If want to help the people of Joplin, including some who are Dukes, the link to an ABC news story about how you can help:

To learn more about Anne Stewart and Justin Constantine, click on the links below:


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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