I’ve been aware, this past month, of the large sculptures that have been quietly appearing around Joplin. There are 22 of them. Area businesses, including Missouri Southern State University, Mercy Hospital, The Joplin Globe, The Joplin Chamber of Commerce and Mason Woodard Mortuary have these uniquely beautiful butterflies mounted on their lawns.
This week marks a big anniversary in the Joplin and Duquesne areas. Five years ago, on Sunday May 22, one of history’s biggest and most destructive tornadoes tore through both communities, leaving devastation in its wake. Thousands of homes and businesses and vehicles were destroyed. Trees were uprooted or, left standing, stripped of leaves, twigs and bark. In places even the grass was ripped from the ground and the earth gouged. One hundred and sixty one people lost their lives…men, women and children.
It’s not an anniversary to celebrate, per se, but a time of remembrance…a time of appreciating a community that has rebuilt and grown strong…a time of recognizing the tremendous efforts of more than a hundred thousand volunteers. There are many activities connected to the 5th anniversary this week, grouped under the banner of Joplin Proud. I’ll be mindfully attending several of those events.
As stories were told by survivors, one story in particular was repeated over and over, especially by children. As the deadly storm approached, many kids, and some adults, reported seeing large “butterfly people” appear above them, their wings spread as a protective covering over them and their families. These protectors disappeared as the tornado passed by, leaving people shaken but safe.
There has been a great deal of speculation about who the butterfly people were, however the most accepted theory is that these were angels. Many other people reported being helped by tall men in bright, white clothing…men who later vanished. But the children saw huge butterflies. Perhaps because butterflies are not scary, perhaps to reassure the kids, these youngest storm victims saw something marvelous and beautiful. Whatever extraordinary beings people saw, the ultimate result was the same…protection and assistance.
And the butterfly is a symbol of change, of transformation through the process of metamorphosis. The caterpillar uses massive amounts of energy to literally change form, to emerge as a beautiful and wondrous new creature. Imagine life changing to such an extreme that you are unrecognizable at the end of the transformation.
Southern Joplin was unrecognizable after the initial, negative transformation, brought about by a massive force of nature. My first thought as I emerged from my battered house was that a bomb had been dropped on us. My neighborhood was gone. Houses, or pieces of them, blocked the streets. Explosions erupted from busted gas pipes. Trees lay broken in yards, cars were twisted or flattened hunks of metal. Debris was everywhere. I stood in the silence, eerie after the roar of the tornado and the unforgettable sounds of the world shuddering apart, more shocked than I have ever been in my life.
My community immediately sprang into action, even as rain continued to fall, clearing roads for emergency vehicles, boarding up broken windows, searching through piles of lumber where houses once stood, hoping to find survivors. Volunteers poured into Joplin and Duquense from around the world. For days sirens never ceased to wail as rescue operations continued. And for months and months, the hopeful sound of saws and hammers filled the air as rebuilding began.
Five years later, we are a community transformed by the power of love. We have emerged, a new creation. There is still building going on. We have more work to do. And we have things yet to repair, in a physical sense and in deeply emotional ways. But our spirit is strong.
The butterfly is our symbol. Like that amazing creature’s transformation, it has taken massive amounts of energy to bring Joplin through her metamorphosis. And like the butterfly who has just emerged from her cocoon, we are flexing our wings, preparing to soar, rising with those very winds of change.
We are Joplin Proud, indeed.