JOPLIN, Mo. — The survivors of the monster tornado that ravaged this small city gathered to grieve their losses, as President Obama called on them to remember the stories of “strength and courage” that emerged from the storm.
Exactly one week ago, a deadly twister of historic proportions ravaged Joplin, leaving only walls at the high school, stripping pews out of a Baptist church and tossing homes out of their neighborhoods. More than 130 people died, many are still missing and hundreds are homeless.
On Sunday, Obama stood at the front of a college auditorium for a memorial service that marked the devastation and focused on rebuilding this city of 50,000, which looks as though a bulldozer had mowed down a six-mile swath in the center.
“The question that weighs on us at a time like this is why. Why our town? Why our home? Why our son or husband or wife or sister or friend? We do not have the capacity to answer,” Obama said before quoting Scriptures and promising that the country would stand with the city.
The role of chief comforter has become familiar ground for Obama, who pivoted from a week of diplomacy on the world stage to empathize with families in the heartland. Last month, he toured similar devastation after twisters that hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., and offered similar encouragement. He did the same for flood victims along the Mississippi.
Obama’s motorcade stopped in the zone of destruction in Joplin, where the twister’s winds reached 200 miles per hour. The damage left in the storm’s wake was “just as heartbreaking and in some ways even more devastating” than what he saw in Alabama, the president said.
Sunday’s community memorial service, on the Missouri Southern State University campus, was led by local clergy. One minister told the story of an 18-year-old parishioner who was killed days after he graduated from high school and of the chaos in the moments after the storm.
“People were just running. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just ran alongside people,” said the Rev. Aaron Brown, who saw a third of his church building blown away. “Across the street, there were two elderly people who died in their own back yard.”
The auditorium held 1,900 people, but many in this deeply conservative city opted not to come.
Pat Harbottle is still dazed after losing the home she shared with her husband, Jim. She bears an apple-size bruise on her right arm, and he a nick on his forehead; they survived by crouching in a closet. She called Obama’s visit “minimal” in the scheme of things.
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at her son, who had come from Chicago to check on his parents. “That means so much more.”
There also were complaints that the president would tie up traffic and slow down the work of rebuilding.
Still others in Joplin greeted Obama — who landed in this part of the Ozarks hours after returning from Europe — with “God Bless America” and “God Bless Joplin” signs. One home his motorcade passed had only part of a foundation and the base of the chimney, which was adorned with an American flag. Other pancaked homes had flags stuck into the ground.
Obama stopped to talk to an 85-year-old man named Hugh Hills. He told Obama he had just pulled his chicken potpie out of the oven when he looked at the TV and saw the storm was coming. The old man said he quickly grabbed a quilt, wrapped himself in it and hid in a closet. The second floor and half the first floor of his house were destroyed, but he escaped unhurt.
The dead are still being identified, and the local talk radio station has been reading an alphabetical list of names of the confirmed dead, from Miguel Alvarez, 28, to Charles W. Writer, 74.
The first funeral was held Friday, for Adam Dewayne Darnaby. He died four days short of his 28th birthday.
It is a first step for residents of Joplin who have been trying to move on. The Joplin Family Worship Center has been converted into a warehouse with canned peaches, soup and other nonperishables covering 10 tables.
“We need nice blankets, cots and sheets,” pastor Daniel Wermuth II said. “The first two days we had people coming in just covered in dirt from the storm. Now, they need toiletries.”
One member of the church, Linda Bolyard, had lost her home and her job and came to the service Sunday to say her tearful goodbyes. Bolyard, 72, had neither the energy nor desire to rebuild.
“I’m moving to Texas,” she said.