JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Kurt Carpenter saw President Barack Obama walking toward him Sunday on Kentucky Avenue, he could not believe his eyes.
“I had the EF-5 jitters all over again,’’ he said.
Carpenter said the president came right up to him and put his arm around him.
The Joplin resident said, “He said to me: ‘Tell me about it. Tell me your story.’ I could not believe the president was talking me.
“I kept thinking — he’s talking to ME? He’s putting his arm around ME?’’
ON THE GROUND
Carpenter, who lost his home to the tornado, said the thing that impressed him about Obama’s visit to the 2300 block of South Kentucky Avenue was the way he did it.
“He walked,” he said. “He didn’t drive by and look at it from a vehicle. He walked all the way down this street.’’
Asked whether he thought the president’s visit to Joplin would help, he said, “It helped me. I think it was good for him to see what we are experiencing.’’
Delaine Clark, of Joplin, was working at a relief station when she saw Obama walking up the street toward her.
“I have never shook hands with the president before,’’ she said.
Obama took a special interest in a little boy at the station by the name of Tanner Hills, she said.
“He was grinning from ear to ear. He was so excited when the president walked up,’’ she said. “The president asked him: ‘How did you lose that tooth?’ Tanner talks all the time, but he didn’t say a word.’’
Clark said when Tanner’s relative, Hugh Hills, who lives on that street, saw the president coming “he came out of his house waving the flag,” she said. “When the president left, I told Tanner this will be something you will remember for the rest of your life.
“I thank the Lord for him making an appearance in this place.’’
Jill Wilkins, rural Joplin, who also works at the relief station, has made friends with a woman who has lost her home. She knows her as “Mrs. Lane.”
“She came to me and in her sweet voice said: ‘I hugged the president,’” Wilkins said. “Mrs. Lane said the president told her: ‘We’re going to build you a new house.’’’
WORDS OF CAUTION
The president made a special point to reach out to the relief workers who have descended on Joplin from across the nation. In one instance, a woman rushed through the debris to get to him.
Obama said, “Don’t get hurt getting over here.’’
The neighborhood got clues that the president was coming about 15 minutes before his arrival. Streets leading to the neighborhood were blocked. Then some bomb-sniffing dogs were walked through the area. After that, men with portable metal detectors, known as “wands,’’ checked each resident that the president would likely meet on his walk-about.
The president, who was accompanied by Mayor Mike Woolston, U.S. Rep. Billy Long, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Gov. Jay Nixon and his wife, Georganne, posed for pictures with several of the people he met. After the president left, someone came to each of them and asked where copies of the photographs could be sent.
With the ruins of Joplin High School as a backdrop in the distance, Obama stopped briefly to give the press his impression of what he saw.
“Obviously the scene speaks for itself,” he said. “When we were in Tuscaloosa (Ala.) a few weeks ago, I talked about how I had not seen devastation like that in my lifetime. You come here to Joplin, and it is just as heartbreaking and in some ways even more devastating.
“The main thing I just want to communicate to the people of Joplin is this is just not your tragedy. This is a national tragedy and that means there will be a national response.
“And then we’re just going to have a tough, long slog. But what I’ve been telling every family that I’ve met here is we’re going to be here long after the cameras leave. We are not going to stop until Joplin is fully back on its feet.’’
Nixon said, “We’re especially appreciative, Mr. President, you focusing your attention right here, the entire world’s attention right here, to help us in ways that will make a lasting difference to this community. God bless you, my friend.’’
The president arrived at the Joplin Regional Airport after flying over Joplin in Air Force One to see the scope of the damage. After the president had departed, Nixon said, “He was stunned by what he saw. He was in awe of what he saw. He said it looked like a giant bulldozer had gone across Joplin.’’
Seeing it from the sky, Nixon said, “steeled his resolve to help, and he will. For me, I could not have been prouder of Joplin.’’
When Air Force One touched down at 12:30 p.m., Chavez Wilson, 9, a student at West Central Elementary in Joplin, was waiting to see him.
“I thought I would get to actually shake his hand, but I did get to see him get off the plane and walk down the steps,’’ he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me.’’
Under tight security, Obama’s 20-vehicle motorcade sped from the General Aviation Terminal to North Main Street and then south through downtown Joplin. From there, he went to East 20th Street and to the neighborhood at 24th Street and Kentucky Avenue.
After spending an hour or so there, the motorcade returned to Main Street and went north to Fourth Street. It went east from there to South Florida Avenue and then north to Newman Road. The motorcade arrived at Missouri Southern State University about a half hour before a memorial service at 2 p.m.
All along the motorcade route people were waving the flag and holding signs of support for Joplin and Obama. There were a few “Nobama’’ signs.
At the memorial service, Obama complimented Randy Garris, of College Heights Christian Church, the Rev. Justin Monaghan, of St. Mary’s Church, and the Rev. Aaron Brown, of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, for what he said were powerful comments. He also commended Nixon.
Brown emphasized that for Christians “death does not get the last word. Death doesn’t win — ever. Life wins.’’
He said this happened “because life on this side of eternity is chaotic. God loves you; God loves Joplin.’’
Nixon said God has chosen a mission for Joplin just as he did for the Good Samaritan. That mission, he said, “is to build Joplin anew — to make it an even better place than it was before. God says show me, show me.’’
He said the people of Missouri are born for this mission. They are tough, stubborn and “always come together in a crisis.’’ He said the city will look different a year from now and even more different five years from now, “but the moral of the story will stay the same — love thy neighbor.’’ His remarks received a standing ovation.
Obama said, “Today we gather to celebrate the lives of those we’ve lost to the storms here in Joplin and across the Midwest, to keep in our prayers those still missing, to mourn with their families, to stand together during this time of pain and trial.
“And as Rev. Brown alluded to, the question that weighs on us at a time like this is: Why? Why our town? Why our home? Why my son, or husband, or wife, or sister, or friend? Why?
“We do not have the capacity to answer. We can’t know when a terrible storm will strike, or where, or the severity of the devastation that it may cause. We can’t know why we’re tested with the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a home where we’ve lived a lifetime.
“These things are beyond our power to control. But that does not mean we are powerless in the face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control. And it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.
“In the last week, that’s what Joplin has not just taught Missouri, not just taught America, but has taught the world.’’
Obama continued: “As the governor said, you have shown the world what it means to love thy neighbor. You’ve banded together. You’ve come to each other’s aid. You’ve demonstrated a simple truth: that amid heartbreak and tragedy, no one is a stranger. Everybody is a brother. Everybody is a sister. We can all love one another.’’
As Obama spoke, his comments often were punctuated by applause and standing ovations. It reached its zenith when he talked about standing together in the future.
“As you move forward in the days ahead, I know that rebuilding what you’ve lost won’t be easy. I just walked through some of the neighborhoods that have been affected, and you look out at the landscape, and there have to be moments where you just say, where to begin? How to start? There are going to be moments where after the shock has worn off, you feel alone.
“But there’s no doubt in my mind what the people of this community can do. There’s no doubt in my mind that Joplin will rebuild. And as president, I can promise you your country will be there with you every single step of the way.
“We will be with you every step of the way. We’re not going anywhere. We will be with you every step of the way until Joplin is restored and this community is back on its feet. We’re not going anywhere.
“That is not just my promise, that’s America’s promise. It’s a promise I make here in Joplin; it’s a promise I made down in Tuscaloosa, or in any of the communities that have been hit by these devastating storms over the last few weeks.’’
Obama cited moments of heroism.
“Dean Wells was working a shift at the Home Depot, managing the electrical department, when the siren rang out,” he said. “He sprang into action, moving people to safety. Over and over again, he went back for others, until a wall came down on top of him. In the end, most of the building was destroyed, but not where Dean had directed his co-workers and his customers.
“There was a young man named Christopher Lucas who was 26 years old. Father of two daughters; third daughter on the way. Just like any other night, Christopher was doing his job as manager on duty at Pizza Hut. And then he heard the storm coming.
“It was then when this former sailor quickly ushered everybody into the walk-in freezer. The only problem was, the freezer door wouldn’t stay closed from the inside. So as the tornado bore down on this small storefront on Range Line Road, Christopher left the freezer to find a rope or a cord or anything to hold the door shut. He made it back just in time, tying a piece of bungee cord to the handle outside, wrapping the other end around his arm, holding the door closed with all his might.
“And Christopher held it as long as he could, until he was pulled away by the incredible force of the storm. He died saving more than a dozen people in that freezer.’’
Obama said the surviving must live up to their example.
“Just as we can’t know why tragedy strikes in the first place, we may never fully understand where these men and women find the courage and strength to do what they did. What we do know is that in a split-second moment where there’s little time for internal reflection or debate, the actions of these individuals were driven by love — love for a family member, love for a friend, or just love for a fellow human being.
“And so, in the wake of this tragedy, let us live up to their example — to make each day count — to live with the sense of mutual regard — to live with that same compassion that they demonstrated in their final hours. We are called by them to do everything we can to be worthy of the chance that we’ve been given to carry on.’’
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Kurt Carpenter saw President Barack Obama walking toward him Sunday on Kentucky Avenue, he could not believe his eyes.
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