Ground Zero

| July 13, 2011

By Chris Jung
Special to The Voice-Tribune

JoplinAs the Thrifty truck’s “Trip A” odometer neared the rollover of its 600th mile and the MO-43 North exit came into view, a baseball-sized knot grew inside my stomach.

After four weeks of assisting the effort to collect sporting goods and athletic equipment for the displaced and devastated youth of Joplin, Mo. – including an enormous shipment from St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. – the physical delivery of this generously-donated cargo was finally becoming an exciting, yet difficult reality.

The electric construction marquees along the highway directing disaster volunteers, and the Salvation Army shelter tents passing out food, clothing and supplies began to paint a picture of what I and Louisville Sports Commission representative Brooke Ballard were driving into.

But no amount of mental preparation or viewing of images and video on TV could have ever equipped us for the horrific sights and scenes awaiting us in the heart of this 45,000-person town.


Why sporting goods?

Nearly one month prior to our arrival in Joplin, a series of EF-5 tornadoes ripped through the city, leveling homes, schools, businesses and churches. Nearly 160 of the town’s residents were killed; almost 900 were injured. The landscape of this proud southwestern Missouri city was drastically changed.

Countless Joplin children abruptly had their livelihood shattered. And as their parents and families scrambled to understand the wreckage and attempt to pick up the scattered and remaining pieces of their known existence, young people were asked to sit by idly and patiently during a nightmare of a summer without anything to do.

Identifying this need for recreation, wanting to provide resources and motivation for activity and deciding to take a unique approach to assisting an area normally deemed as a “non-necessity” in a natural disaster, established a relief effort called “Help Joplin Rebound.”

With the help of local businesses (Sam Swope, Republic Bank, Louisville Athletic Club, Shively Sporting Goods, Urban Active, Kentucky Financial Group, Still Spinnin’ and the Louisville Bats) that acted as public dropoff locations for new and gently-used sporting goods, more than 1,000 pieces of equipment were accumulated, sorted and packed into a truck that barely had room for the impressive collection.


The Joplin drop

The target destination in this journey was McCauley Catholic High School, one of two Catholic high schools in Joplin that serves the St. Mary’s Parish. McCauley, one of the town’s lucky and unscathed structures, quickly stepped forward to act as an overflow triage center for outside donations.

Upon our arrival to the campus, McCauley Catholic High Principal Gene Koester was there to meet us. The appreciative and sincere smile on his face as he emerged from the school’s front entrance radiated across the parking lot, and it became abundantly clear that a donation of this type would definitely go a long way in creating fragments of normalcy for local students who lost their equipment, but not their zest for life.

Members of the MCHS soccer and football teams helped unload the truck, forming an efficient assembly line to a trailer belonging to an organization called Catholic Charities. The high school boys lit up as the doors opened and shoes, balls, goals and more began to pour out.

Studying every box, the boys displayed their excitement through an array of sound effects and were even quick to test out some of the gear, bouncing Trinity High School basketballs and tossing around a donated football.


More about the devastation

Lisa Olliges, a local Joplin reporter for KOAM-TV, was on hand to cover this Louisville-based effort and even conducted an interview to learn more details about the conception and execution of “Help Joplin Rebound.” After finishing the interview, collapsing her tripod and placing the camera back in its bag, Olliges shared some of the personal struggles she was dealing with as a result of the tornado.

Fighting back tears, Olliges talked about how her home was damaged by the twisters, but not enough to be considered a recipient of insurance assistance. Despite her obvious frustration, she also drove home the fact that she was one of the “lucky ones.”

Olliges also described the first night in Joplin after the tornadoes had left a path of devastation.

“My husband, who has lived in Joplin all his life, couldn’t even tell where he was standing in our block,” she said. “There were no street signs. No houses or visible landmarks. He said it was an incredibly eerie experience.”

Standing in a parking lot that had no harm done to it, we asked Olliges where the heart of the storm had really been.

“You haven’t seen St. Mary’s Church yet?” Olliges asked with a tone of desperation in her voice.

We told her we hadn’t, and she picked up her bag, took a deep breath and pointed us in that direction with sadness in her eyes.

“If there is such a thing, that’s Joplin’s ground zero.”


Discovering a tragedy

As we turned down a narrow road, made our way up a rather steep hill and drove up to St. Mary’s Church, we found a breathtaking cross standing upright and prestigious.

Around this traditional and common church symbol, however, was nothing but rubble.

Piles of parish directories, cartons of plastic Easter eggs and mangled picture frames were strewn on the ground beside heaps of brick, stone and wood that, at one time, had been the architecture of this once magnificent building.

From the driveway of the church, you could see for miles as utility trucks, contractors and insurance agents slowly worked to attend to this overwhelming and utterly horrifying area that was now flattened and decimated.

As we drove through the streets, snapping photos of the debris, tears dropped from our eyes as we attempted to fathom what we were seeing. No movie set could ever duplicate this disaster area. It was heartbreaking to think that it will take a generation to rebuild the city. It was the type of tragedy that made you want to stay for months and help. Unfortunately that was not realistic.

Driving silently out of town, taking in our last few sights of Main Street in Joplin, a gutted sporting goods store caught our eyes. Spray painted on the boarded windows were three words: “God bless Joplin.”

Reflecting on and remembering the generosity of the wonderful people back in Derby City, I nodded in agreement with the message, but made a vocal amendment as we pulled away: “God bless Louisville.”

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