Day of Remembrance: Joplin Tornado

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Joplin tornado. On this date, and day, in 2011, a massive EF5 tornado devastated the communities of Joplin and Duquesne. Considered one of the biggest and deadliest tornadoes in the past 70 years, this storm destroyed a third of my town, injured more than a thousand people and killed 161. 

This year, being the five year anniversary, there were many activities and times of both remembrance and celebration. I participated in several of those. 

Today I have been in a quiet, reflective mood, somber yet hopeful. I was grateful for the bright sunny day, with no threat of storms. And I was appreciative of the celebrations and memorial service held at Cunningham Park. I attended the wonderful lunch that Operation BBQ Relief provided for hundreds and mingled with others while listening to music provided by Carter Hulsey and Kenny Foster. 

I’ve shared in previous posts about my experiences the day of the tornado and about Joplin’s resilience. Rather than sharing my words in this post today, here are pictures that captured the event at Cunningham Park:

The 161 memorial trees planted in Cunningham Park are big enough now to provide shade. 

It was good to gather with others at the park today. Good to see people I know and exchange greetings and hugs. I am thankful for all that people offered this week, to honor those who died and to celebrate the spirit of this community. 

And, I made the decision not to attend the remembrance service at the park. My own backyard garden was calling to. I sought the peace and sanctuary of that beautiful, peaceful space, to remember on my own. 

Watching the movie A Little Chaos recently inspired me to light candles throughout my garden. Tonight,  I wanted to do that, create pockets of light, and build a small fire in the fire pit, in honor of those lost in the storm. I didn’t have 161 candles to light. But the 25 or so that I lit were for them. 

Here are photos of my quiet time of remembering:

I felt restored after my time in the garden, with its warm candlelight and enchantment, and at peace. Although I feel sorrow around the events of May 22, 2011, the heaviness has gone. 

I’ll never forget what happened or the people lost. Nor do I want to. Their lives are part of the fabric of this community, their stories woven with ours, inseparable. The tornado too, is part of us, part of our story. On one seemingly ordinary day, that storm turned our world upside down and  revealed who we are, at our core. We are compassionate. We are overcomers. We are strong. We are Joplin Strong. 

The Other Side of Storm Concert

I had the honor of attending a very special concert this evening. While I am not musically gifted, I nonetheless have a deep appreciation for music. It moves me, stirs my soul and speaks to my heart, using the language of melodious sound. The revised version of The Other Side of Storm, written by Dr. Hubert Bird, made its world debut here last night and tonight, performed appropriately in the new Joplin High School Performing Arts Center. 

Dr. Bird was born in Joplin. He is an award winning, nationally and internationally known composer and conductor. He now resides in nearby Baxter Springs, KS. Visiting Joplin shortly after the May 22, 2011 tornado, he stood on the corner of 26th Street and Maiden Lane, and wept. There was devastation, as far as he could see. His doctor’s and dentist’s offices were gone. Behind him, St. John’s hospital lay in ruins. 

Knowing he wanted to offer to the community of Joplin, from his heart, Dr. Bird realized he could best express his sorrow through music. He wrote the original composition, which was performed in Joplin in 2012. Performers included Joplin’s All City Singers, a chorus of more than 100 high school students, a forty five-piece orchestra with members from across the country, and Bird’s daughter and son-in law, Jennifer and Bjoern Arvidsson as soloists.

Since that first performance, Dr. Bird has continued to develop the composition, adding narratives, read this evening by Gwen Hunt, and visual components by Danny Craven. Both Joplin concerts featured the return of the soloists, the All City Singers with children from local elementary schools, conducted by Kathy deMint, Cindy Oster and Autumn Shurley, and the MSSU Singers, prepared by conductor Dr. David Sharlow. The orchestra was comprised of musicians from across the US, and was conducted by Col. L. Bryan Shelburne Jr. Orchestra soloists were Harold Easley, clarinet, and Dr. Raul Munguia, violin. 

As the lights dimmed, I settled into my seat, open and ready to receive this musical interpretation of the devastating storm that tore through Joplin, and the light and hope that returned afterward. 

The All City Singers began the program with two songs. I was struck by their beautifully clear voices and the poignancy of the song titles. The Journey and Song of the River seemed to tell my story too, using words and symbols from my last two years. 

The Other Side of Storm began with a low, percussive rumbling, reminiscent of thunder, and tears slowly filled my eyes. How stirring this performance would prove to be, and how freeing to my emotions. 

Part I told of the build up to the storm. Throughout the piece, Dr. Bird used, with permission, sections of poetry that he composed music for, to capture the essence of the powerful storm and the aftermath. The poetic words appeared on a large screen as they were sung. Images and videos, the visual component, appeared on the screen as well, creating a rich multi-leveled telling of this story of darkness and light. 

Image is my own. The visual components of the performance are protected, and rightfully so. 

Part II began with the storm, the narrative and images on the screen portraying the formation of the tornado west of Joplin and the warnings issued. My heart raced during this segment, especially when the narrator cried out, “Take cover now!”. The orchestra created with their music the power of that storm…the booming thunder, the building intensity, the raging winds. And then the fury subsided…the music slowing and softening, accompanied by images of Joplin’s massive, cataclysmic destruction. 

My heart rate slowed as well, my breathing deepened as the musical tale continued. There was sorrow, in me and in the music. “I Cannot Find My Way” the singers sang softly, reminding us that we can’t always find our way home, when there is no home left to return to. The lines from Beyond the Sundown impacted me so much that I memorized them. 

“Beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom; today is going to be long, long ago.” Thomas Hornsby Ferril

Five years later, that fateful day is long ago. The memories remain. However, my perspective is shifting, allowing me to let go. 

Part III of the composition brought the return of peace, of hope. The tone changed. Although I’m not sure if it literally happened, as we were still swaddled in darkness, the light seemed to brighten around the orchestra. I could feel a surge of hope, of peace, of love, within me, as I listened. The concert ended with the singers declaring, as the orchestra played in triumph, “We are the Music-Makers, We are the Dreamers of Dreams”.

We were all on our feet, applauding. What an incredibly powerful and moving performance. As the lights came up, the conductor led us in showing appreciation for those who made this concert possible. And finally, from the back of the room, Dr. Hubert Bird slowly stood, to fresh and sincere applause. 

I may be speaking incorrectly, as he has had many award winning works recognized, but for us, this is Dr. Bird’s magnum opus. This is his heart-felt gift to the people of Joplin. I am so deeply grateful to have received such a precious offering.