Tale of two devastated cities - Word&Way

Tale of two devastated cities

A recent trip to Oklahoma City gave me a chance to visit and reflect on two cities that lost about 160 people each to catastrophic events.

Downtown Oklahoma City was the site of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh on a sunny spring day at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. Today on that site are somber memorials to each of the adults and children who perished in the blast.

As I drove to Oklahoma City, I took the Rangeline Road exit from I-44 to see what had happened in the aftermath of the terrifying tornado that raked residential neighborhoods and the business district not even four months ago on May 22, killing about the same number of people that perished in the Oklahoma City terrorist attack.

In 16 years, Oklahoma City (population 560,000) has shown its resolve by overhauling a relatively drab and unexciting downtown into a showcase that has attracted business and a tourist industry. A river walk flanked by restaurants, retail outlets, a minor league ballpark and the home of the National Basketball Association's Oklahoma City Thunder are the centerpieces of the Bricktown area in the heart of downtown. A new skyscraper — the tallest in town — is well on its way to completion.

Once the site of terror, the bombing area has been transformed into a serene outdoor memorial with reflecting pool, chair-like memorials to the dead and the massive Survivor Tree that somehow held its ground as almost everything around it came down.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial also includes an interactive museum that offers visitors an inside look at the events of April 19, 1995, and thereafter. One can't go through it without getting a taste of the terror but also the resolve of a city, state and country that helped pull hope and victory out of fear and chaos.

I first visited Joplin on May 26 — four days after the tornado roared through the city of about 50,000 — and found a community crawling with volunteers — local and from out of town — aiding families deep in grief and still searching for the missing victims.

Within minutes of Joplin's tragedy, residents who survived and rescue personnel were pulling people from devastated structures, including a hospital, a church, homes and businesses. Churches were mobilizing resources and reaching out. That's what happened within minutes of the blast in Oklahoma City.

On my brief drive through Joplin a few days ago, I found construction moving right along on commercial buildings and some residences. Most of the residential neighborhoods had been stripped of the remains of homes, vehicles and other belongings. A few of the old trees sawed off by the tornado remained.

A drugstore along the edge of the tornado's path boasted a sign out front that it had only recently re-opened following repairs, including a new roof. A sign on the property where a church once stood directed people to the temporary meeting place. Similar signs were placed where businesses once stood. The brick sign at the devastated high school — looking about the same as when the tornado struck — sported a new name that reflected the city's attitude — Hope High School.

In Joplin, school opened on time even though several school building were found to be either destroyed or too damaged to host classes.

The tragedies were different, one caused by evil men bent on killing and the other by an act of nature. Both caught people off guard. Both attracted worldwide attention. Both left communities grieving and in shock.

But both produced an encouraging response. Residents are making sure the events will not be forgotten. And in both communities, the resolve has been to create stronger communities and better facilities than before. Oklahoma City's dream has been realized in 16 years while Joplin's is off to a determined start.