Posts Tagged ‘Joplin’

Beth Pike has created a masterpiece in her documentary, Deadline in Disaster, an in-depth portrayal of the events surrounding the Joplin tornado, especially the news coverage provided by staff of the local newspaper, The Joplin Globe. The film premiered in Columbia on May 3 and included conversation with the Globe reporters.

During the Q&A time participants raised the question of the Butterfly People. These conversations referred to the reports and rumors of angelic beings who sheltered and directed people in the midst of the storm. One reporter shared that he wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t heard the phenomenon cited by so many people. Those mentions were often not first hand. But there were first hand accounts.

Joplin Butterfly Mural

The mural that appeared in Joplin the following September keyed off of the butterfly theme, both in the the symbolism of rebirth and with indirect reference to the Butterfly People.

What does one make of such reports? To begin with me might listen to the voices of skeptics, perspectives that are most certainly understandable.

Psychiatrists working with survivors referred to the human need for a security or safety figure, a projection of the parent figure, a hope that there is something benevolent looking out for us. Angels are the personification of our deep wish for protection.

The agnostics among us, those who simply claim to not know, reflect a more measured view. The Butterfly People are perhaps representations of benevolent forces we do not understand, personifications of the good, but not to be taken literally. One never knows what presence is at work and how. To describe it in terms of a butterfly, such a beautiful being in the midst of ugliness, is hopeful and touching.

Most surely the stories of the Butterfly People went viral, traveling the Joplin grapevine at the speed of light. They moved from person to person, person to groups, groups to the whole consciousness. Most of those were second hand reports. Though first hand stories, especially from children, were most persuasive. The Butterfly People story especially made the church circuit and was told in public worship and small groups.

What do I make of it? That’s a good question without a good answer. I’ll take a stab.

First of all, my faith doesn’t depend on external manifestations such as this. I believe, trust, and act accordingly with or without that kind of evidence.

Second, visual representations of invisible powers are just that; representations. They can be real without being literal. But a butterfly image, even classic angelic representation, is as good as any. It’s probably symbolic in content.

Third, anything is possible. Just because phenomena don’t conform to my limited worldview doesn’t mean they don’t happen. In fact, my belief about the possibility of certain things might allow me to see or keep me from seeing.

Fourth, modern physics illuminates religious claims of this sort. Newtonian physics didn’t have room for the invisible beneath the surface of the visible. The new physics does – in spades. There is a semi-permeable membrane between this level of reality and others. That we might be connected to them – especially in turbulent times – seems more likely than before.

Fifth, my skepticism suspects that wishful thinking is often the cause of the constructs we assemble. This tempers my view of such claims. But I also have personal stories from my own family that confound my skepticism. Irrational stories of appearance litter the pathway of our family history album.

Sixth, I really don’t know.

Seventh, why not? Stranger things have happened.

The Emptied Killing Zone: Joplin, Missouri, September 2011

The six mile by one-half mile of devastation left by the Joplin tornado has been cleared, a 24/7 effort fueled by a timeline. By mid-August the removal would need to be complete if the city were to realize the full federal disaster support (90% of all expense). That happened, amazingly, and what was a land covered with debris became an empty land, a ghost town within a city.

Outside of that zone, beyond national media coverage, on the other side of what volunteers have and do offer, are the actual residents of Joplin, making their way toward what my brother calls the “new normal.” It’s a long, slow trek characterized by accumulating weariness. But full of hope and inspiration, too.

My brother opened his new office during the past couple of weeks. Patterns of normalcy have returned, albeit in a new form. And the vacancy left behind has provided room for something new. What will that be? We can only imagine. But something will grow up in its place. It always does.

A baby was born in Joplin today, crying and gasping for new air. She came into this world after the tornado, the cleanup, and all the starting over. Years from now people will tell her, “You were born in the year of the great tornado.” And she will ask, “What was it like?” And her grandmother will say, “It was a stormy and windy night …”

I visited my brother in Joplin this week. I stopped by as I drove through on the way to a week of spiritual renewal in New Mexico. We sat in the Starbucks off I-44 on Rangeline and sipped iced coffee. Interesting developments in the tornado-ravaged town:

First, the task of debris removal is way ahead of schedule. The non-stop professional removal process segregates types of debris – electronics, metal, hazardous, trees – and removes it to particular dumps and landfills. A moratorium was placed on all new building in the destruction zone to keep people out of the way. That has now been lifted. All removal must be done by mid-August to continue to receive government funding for the project – 90% of the total. The city government informed residents that if it weren’t for Federal assistance the city of Joplin would have been bankrupted.

Side bar: The last residents of the Red Cross shelters left after several weeks of the tornado and many persons without permanent shelter were staying with relatives and friends. If people had homes with insurance then that covered the cost of getting them back into housing. If they were apartment dwellers and had no relatives and friends who could take them in, they were less fortunate. A number of those turned to …

Side bar: Shortly after the disaster a local citizen named Clyde put his large tracts of land to use for shelter. His properties adjoin Shoal Creek and so he created space for a temporary tent city. The locals call it Clyde Park (!). Anyone who so desired could set up their tent and camp until they found ways to secure other shelter. He brought in water, electricity and porta- potties.

Side bar: FEMAville is a trailer city and reaches for blocks and blocks. The limit for time spent in a FEMA trailer is 18 months. They were a God send for many people and they were delivered and set up in a timely and helpful way.

Side bar: The volunteer situation is still very iffy. My brother’s Methodist church was ready to house 40 volunteers from other Methodist churches out of the area but had to cancel the whole thing at the last moment because unforeseen obstacles prevented their coming. That is happening with some frequency, those kinds of interruptions. Still, the most common message from those on the ground (including our Disciples pastors in Joplin) is that there will be plenty of time to send teams to help in the future, but now probably isn’t the best.

Side bar: Who needs the help? If you had insurance that covered your affected home or affected business then you just paid to have professionals take care of the mess – removal or repair. Volunteers have mostly been working with those without insurance who had no way to move forward alone. That tends to be the demographic most served.

Side bar: Everything affects everything else. Employment has been interrupted because businesses and employers were so direly affected. Job loss then becomes another challenge for income which affects obtaining housing and so on and so on. The dominoes fall.

Last Side bar: My once Republican, libertarian-leaning brother told a story about a group of Chiropractors from another state who made a journey to Joplin to bring used equipment so their Joplin colleagues might use to furnish their new offices. About half was usable and the other had to be discarded because no one would put that beat up equipment into new office space. The Joplin crowd expressed their sincere thanks and appreciation for their out-of-state compassionate friends who had traveled so far to help. As the three Joplin men helped unload the truck talk from the out-of-staters turned derogatory toward FEMA, the Federal Government and other governmental agencies. The three Joplin guys froze in their tracks, looked at each other and simply said: “FEMA and the Federal, State, and local governments have been stellar – we couldn’t have made it without them and they were great.” That was not received well by those predisposed toward labeling anything beyond volunteer, private sector help as invalid.

The truth of the matter in Joplin is that a combination of resources – Federal, State, Municipal, networks of first responders and medical personal, utilities companies, insurance companies, private organizations and volunteers all combined efforts to make a great success story.

The time for either-or language is officially over. It’s a case of both-and. Always has been, really. Talk to my brother. He appreciates them all. If he could he would give a big hug to his insurance company, then to Federal Emergency Management, and then to the bunch of church guys that dropped by to help him sort through debris. It’s everybody, every level. It’s not ideological. It’s pragmatic.

Somebody please send a copy of that memo to our elected officials in the capital. They obviously haven’t gotten it. It’s going to take all of us – each layer of our society – reaching out when most appropriate to address whatever need presents itself with whatever resources are most appropriate  to do the job.

P.S. My brother’s new office will be opening in a couple of weeks. Champagne all around.

The following meditation is from Deb Ward, a Broadway Christian Church member and leader of our Stephen Ministry. She makes the clear connection between nature storms and any storm of life and the kind of theology that can interpret them all:

The Lord said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came the sound of a gentle whisper.

(Kings 19:11-12)

 On Sunday, May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado with winds of over 200 MPH dropped down on Joplin, MO, flattening over 800 dwellings, 500 commercial properties, and leaving a death toll of at least 138. Here in Columbia, a safe distance away, we felt the agony of those who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, their workplaces, and their sense of personal safety to the raging, monstrous storm. The sobering reality was that the storm in Joplin, while the worst of the season’s tornadoes, was only one of a number of tragic acts of nature that struck over a three-month period, including the massive tsunami in Japan.

Gathered in our sanctuary, our safe place, at Broadway on the following Sunday, we listened as Pastor Tim related his experience of “being there” for his brother, a Joplin resident, in the storm’s aftermath. He shared photos, told us things the media didn’t, and talked about picking through the rubble of his brother’s business, helping as he could.

Tim reminded us that this storm was not an act of God, but rather an act of nature. God and nature are not the same. Ancient religions could not discern between God and nature, but we can. We know that this storm was not evidence of God’s wrath. God was not in that tornado. The tornado was a random act of nature, not an act of God.

Life brings us many kinds of storms, whether acts of nature, circumstances beyond our control, or situations we help to create. We can feel broken. But Tim reminded us that while the road ahead may be broken by the storm, God brings restoration and hope.

God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but rather in the small still voice. God is there for us in all of the storms of life. In a world full of uncertainty, God is the one constant we can rely on. God speaks in the gentle whisper that guides us. God is the source of abundant love. God brings comfort and healing. Take needed action. But also be still. Know that God is near. Listen for the small still voice, and find hope in it.

(Based on sermon by Tim Carson, May 29, 2011.)

 Creator God, thank you for your many blessings. We ask that you would comfort the tornado victims in their losses. Help those in storm-torn areas to accept assurances of your love and mercy. As we face the storms of life, help us to calm down from the adrenaline rush that fear brings. Help us to listen so that we can hear your gentle whisper. May we always remember your faithfulness to us and your love for us. ~ Amen


To read the full manuscript of Tim Carson’s sermon, And the Lord was not in the Wind (May 29, 2011) click here:

Report from brother, Rod Carson, in Joplin – conversations with people who, having taken cover in center rooms of their houses, basements, or storm shelters, emerged after the tornado only to find the entirely unanticipated:

“A common theme among people I’ve talked to who crawled out of wreckage

is the expectation of finding local damage and instead finding total devastation.”

When people voluntarily or involuntarily are thrust into a radical time of change, an event or passage that strips away the dependable structure,  anthropologists like Victor Turner described them as having passed into a “liminal” time. Liminal existence is defined by its “inbetweenness” – the sensation of free-floating, detached, all the balls in the air.

This liminal period can be ushered in by life changes – graduating from school, going through a divorce, entering the wilderness of widowhood, going through war, having a baby, passing through the middle passages of life, and experiencing a cultural rite of passage. But liminal existence also appears in the wake of tremendous disaster. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Twin Towers  and Pentagon attack on 9/11 and now the Joplin Tornado thrusts not only individuals but entire groups of people – like cities and even nations – into social liminality. It is a state of great dis-ease and disorientation, an inability to find familiar coordinates.

When my brother and I stood in the middle of the Joplin tornado kill zone and beheld the stripping of all familiar structures from our sight, we spoke of how strangely inbetween it felt. We, like everyone else, had become, in Victor Turner’s language, liminal beings. Not forever, but most surely for now. Where is something solid on which we may stand?

Today my brother texted me and said that he was finding a way to set up a new temporary base of operation for his work due to the destruction of his office building. And one of the reasons he gave was that he just needed to do something that seemed ordinary, normal, typical. And so we do. People are often surprised to hear that a new widowed person wants to get back to work. But that is not strange at all. We all seek out the touchstones of the familiar. And so it is following the Joplin tornado. This is one of the reasons that houses of worship will be well attended at first. Happy pastors will mistake this surge for a new spiritual awakening. That is not so. After about six weeks attendance will drop down to the pre-crisis levels as people emotionally adjust and return to their old patterns.

As we stood in line on Wednesday, seeking a permit to enter the disaster zone, we did so with many other persons seeking to do the same thing. The only reason they were in that line was that they had either lost a place to live or a business that they owned or in which they worked. We all had a shared liminality at that point. And because of it were bonded together in an unusual kind of way. We talked with others with unusual familiarity, having shared the same tragedy together. Victor Turner calls that new liminal sense of solidarity communitas. You find it all the time. People served in the military together and survived the same campaign. School mates traveled on the same team. And then there are the survivors of disasters or even common illness. There exists a solidarity of the liminal.

It takes a while to traverse the liminal passage. We certainly don’t want the state of being to become permanent, to become stuck there. The word, liminal, comes from the Latin, limens, which means threshold. We’ve crossed the threshold and are free-falling for a time. The encouraging thing is that there is more opportunity for transformation in that liminal space than anywhere else. I can become a new creature, if I allow it, that is.


For more on liminality see:

Limnal Reality and Transformational Power (University Press of America, 1997)

Razed Path Through Joplin

On Sunday, May 22, around 5:30 p.m., the worst single tornado strike in U.S. history since 1950 mowed a path through Joplin, Missouri that was at least a half mile wide and six miles in length. Over 100 were killed and many have not yet been located. And since my brother and his family lives in Joplin I drove there on Tuesday.

I arrived in time to hear the story of the past 48 hours from my brother, Rod Carson.

My brother was one of the fortunate ones; his house is outside of town and was not in

Rod Carson in front of his former office

the path of the F5 tornado. He has well water so didn’t have to worry about the must boil water alert for the rest of Joplin. And he enjoyed electricity, something many other citizens did not have.

The authorities pleaded with people to not go to or return to the disaster zone that Sunday night. So after a fitful night and with first light of day on Monday, my brother and his office administrator found a way toward his Chiropractic office. They knew it was a part of the kill zone and so were not hopeful. Their expectation was confirmed: His office was entirely demolished. What they were able to do was to remove the computers and hard drives, in spite of the broken natural gas lines. Like angels, half a dozen guys from an unknown church asked if they needed help, which they did. They garbage bagged all patient records and passed them, as a bucket brigade, out of the rubble into the back of a truck. The files are now sleeping quietly in my brother’s front room.  The helpers left as soon as they appeared without an opportunity to thank them.

The first responders were awesome. Police and Firemen and their vehicles and equipment arrived from every municipality on the Missouri and Kansas side. Fantastic coordination from Joplin authorities established perimeters and a coordinated search and rescue. By the end of Tuesday, and a curfew that went into place at 9:00 p.m., the search and rescue dogs were withdrawn and the so called “cadaver” dogs took their place – looking for the dead. At that point the security around the disaster site was well established. Wednesday morning would bring even stricter security.

By Wednesday only official workers, law enforcement, utilities companies, and heavy equipment operators were permitted access. Residents and those with commercial offices were required to obtain a permit to return to the disaster area. There were four such permit stations around the perimeter of the disaster zone. My brother and I obtained ours and traveled to the remains of his office. We sorted through the debris, sometimes sharp and hazardous. And we salvaged a few things of value that could be used. When we pulled away from that location it would be the last time my brother would go there. There was nothing to which a person could return.

The difference between a Katrina or flood and this is simple: There is nothing left. There is nothing to repair, muck out or make habitable.

Hiroshima without the radiation: It's absolutely silly to think about work groups or volunteer church groups going to do anything. That won't happen, not in the kill zone. The only thing that will happen is this: Over months heavy equipment operators will move the debris to dump trucks and haul it away. Someday, then, people might build on it again.

The only place where volunteers could help would be on the perimeter of the kill zone. Because tornadoes are uncanny in their surgical cut, the edge of the disaster zone is clearly delineated. The houses outside of the zone are intact, though damaged by high wind and buffeted with flying debris that fills their yards. A mile away a neighborhood looks like nothing ever happened. So is the striking life of the tornado.

Volunteers were most helpful in shelters for the many homeless. All the motels were full; not even the responders could easily find a room. There were distribution centers established to provide essentials to people who needed them – clothing, personal hygiene items, food, water. Because the high school and two nearby schools were demolished they could not be used. I know for certain that North Joplin Middle School gym was used for distribution. Thank goodness that the high school seniors and their families were not at the high school celebrating on Sunday night, but rather at the community college which was not affected. Some were leaving the college and heading into Joplin when the tornado arrived.

Like dominoes, the needs multiply following the tragedy. If your home is destroyed, you have to secure temporary shelter. The kind you find depends on whether you have family to take you in, money, or access to a shelter. If you have a job, you have to see if your business is still existing and functioning. If not, you’re also unemployed. If you are a businessman, like my brother, you have to find a new office – which we did Wednesday afternoon. More than one person showed up as did we in front of buildings that had “for lease” signs out front.

St. Johns Hospital was severely damaged and many died during the tornado. In addition, some of the ones moved across town to Freeman hospital didn’t survive the move. Because they had to do crisis triage, some hopeful ones were treated while others were left to die on the parking lot. Medical personnel poured in from many other communities.

The governor made an appearance, as will the president. These are largely ceremonial appearances, meant to communicate support and solidarity. In times like these all that matters.

I talked to an insurance adjuster who had set up shop to help people needing to make claims and he talked about some other similar situations. He told me how amazed he was to see everything turned to splinters and then, six months later, the ground be cleared, and then a few years later new construction taking place. It seems unimaginable just looking at the rubble.

So, great thanks to first responders who are the best. Thanks to neighbors and friends who support one another. Thanks to agencies that make it their business to be there when the worst happens.

Our consolation for those who have lost dear ones or don’t know where they are. Our consolation goes to those who had everything taken from them and have no way to replace any of it. Our consolation goes to those who have no way to support themselves and can’t imagine a future.

The shock of this time will pass, like it always does, and beyond rescue and recovery there will be new life on the other side. The other side, however, will be different. Because nothing stays the same after something like this.

The Indomitable Tree of Life