Two years after devastating tornado, Joplin on its way back

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Editor’s note: Sharing compassion for the victims of this week’s Oklahoma tornadoes, Jane Owens Cage (’78), one of Wake Forest’s 2013 Distinguished Alumni Award winners, accepted the Rick Rescorla National Resilience award today from Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. Cage, a Joplin, Mo., business owner and community volunteer, chaired the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team after a tornado devastated that city on May 22, 2011. Here are her remarks from today’s event.

On behalf of all of us in Joplin thank-you.

Two years ago today our city marked an inflection point on its timeline that will never be forgotten. A mighty rush of wind battered Joplin but it also filled our collective spirits with resolve. A community that we had sometimes regarded as ordinary suddenly revealed just how precious it was and we became determined to rebuild and renew. We began to set almost unthinkable goals and achieved them – removing debris by the August deadline and opening school on time. Our efforts were multiplied by volunteers from around the world who joined us in our quest. We know we would never have come this far without their help and that we will never be able to repay those kindnesses.

Since those first few months we’ve come so far, and as someone who has been here as witness and participant along the way, the word I would use to describe our recovery is collective. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, compares the church to a human body, reminding his parishioners that a body is made up of many parts – parts that are distinct yet related and dependent. Just as every body part has a role, every one of us has had a necessary and vital role in Joplin’s continuing recovery. We’ve demonstrated that in ways large and small.

We’ve seen it when citizens had the courage to build the first houses inside the devastation zone to reclaim a neighborhood from the rubble. We witnessed it as families accepted the safe yet stressful haven of moving into FEMA temporary housing units so they could wait for permanent housing in Joplin rather than leave. We watched online voting tolls tick upwards as we competed for precious dollars that we needed to help restore our parks. We’ve cheered as small businesses have reopened along Main Street. We watched congregations of different denominations and faiths share spaces as churches were rebuilt. We have understood the power of home and picked up hammers and saws to help each other get there. We’ve baked and barbecued to make our volunteer helpers feel welcome. We’ve marched against the wind in a show of solidarity that took our breath away.

Damage to Joplin, Mo. in 2011.

Damage to Joplin, Mo. in 2011.

I’ve seen men and women bend but not break beneath the load of responsibilities heaped upon them by May 22nd. I’ve seen tired faces around the meeting table as we pushed and planned. I’ve also seen a community that dared to dream by writing their vision on sticky notes in a crowded gymnasium. I’ve seen us recognize our potential and grow bold to reach for what we could become. I’ve been heartened time after time when we have put our individual organizational needs aside to work for the common good.

And while we have pride in our accomplishments, we are not foolish enough I believe, to become a proud people. Our successes will always be tinged by the tragedy that befell us that evening. Our hard work is a testament to the lives that were lost. The restoration and strengthening of our community is the fulfillment of a promise made to future generations to honor the sacrifices made on May 22nd so we might be better prepared for what could and will come our way again.

Through our own tears, we have become a community washed in compassion that only comes from shared experiences. We understand now, in ways we could never have understood before, what it is like when your foundations crumble. The first chapter of Second Corinthians contains these words, “Praise be to God … who comforts us in all our troubles so that we comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received.” While we are grateful for the recognition of our community resilience it should be not regarded as a trophy but as a tool we can use to help pay it forward.

Thank you Secretary Napolitano, Governor Nixon, for what you have done for Joplin. On a personal note, thank you to the Long Term Community Recovery Team of FEMA Region VII, who led me through the process of listening to Joplin’s citizens.

May God bless us as we continue our recovery and use us as a blessing for other people.

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