What do you say to an 83-year-old woman who just lost everything. I could only utter “I’m sorry.”
When we rolled into Joplin Monday morning to cover the tornado disaster, I knew it would be a horrible sight. But nothing could prepare me for what I saw. Miles of destruction. It was hard to imagine barely 12 hours earlier, these were neighborhoods and businesses. Places people lived and worked. Now, it was gone.
83-year-old Mary Hazelbaker lived alone. She stood in front of what once was her home, now just a pile of lumber, with everything she owned scattered about. She just stared at it. Mary had collected nearly half a century of memories there. “What do you miss most about it,” I asked her. “I just put in new windows,” said Mary, “and I miss looking out of those windows.”
30 percent of Joplin sustained major or significant damage from Sunday evening’s tornado. As of Monday evening the confirmed death count was 116. Not a hundred yards from Mary’s house there was commotion. A dozen searchers surrounded the front of another home. A white sheet was brought out to cover what was found.
Mary wasn’t home at 6 o’clock Sunday evening. She was at church. That probably saved her life.
As I drove through the Joplin neighborhoods, it was clear something more powerful than I could ever imagine had passed through here the evening before. I know it’s an overused cliché, but it truly did look like a war zone. Like a huge bomb detonated here. Cars and trucks stacked and strewn everywhere. Hospital beds where there was no hospital. Homes reduced to scattered brick and lumber. The lonely skeletons of trees standing guard. People walking aimlessly.
Mary wanted to look for her belongings in the rubble. I told her it was too dangerous. Nails. The smell of gas. “But who will clean it up?” Mary wanted to fix it. She wanted everything like it used to be. Like the hundred year old tree laying on its side in her yard, the twister had uprooted her life.
Before I left Mary, I asked her one last question. “What are you going to do now?” She stared at her house for a moment, then quickly turned to me with the spunk that probably got her through her 83 years. “I don’t know. What do you think I should do now? What can I do?” I don’t know either.