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December Travelogue: Seven Months after the EF-5

We wish all you readers the most wonderful of Christmas holidays and safe travels during your journeys this holiday season. This is a continuing series of monthly travelogues, where I document some of my past journeys through this world of ours:

A Route 66 info panel found at Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Route 66, known as "The Mother Road" still holds a mythos and nostalgic pull for many people in love road travel. Many are familiar with the catchy pop standard "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66", composed by writer Bobby Troup and first popularized by legendary singer Nat King Cole, and numerous organizations and groups are dedicated to preserving the legacy of this roadway which traversed from Chicago to Los Angeles.

I have personally traveled the existing westernmost sections on my own in Arizona, and as it turned out, this route would be within a quick turnoff and detour for my spouse and I for much of the journey from California to Ohio when I finally made my move to the Buckeye State.

One of the cities along this famed route, specifically mentioned in the famed pop standard, is Joplin, Missouri. Approximately seven months prior to our travels to Ohio, Joplin was struck with the deadliest tornado since modern record-keeping began. This EF-5 rated tornado tragically killed 158 people and injured more than 1,000 people, and caused an estimated $2.8 billion in total damage. On the trip, we figured out on the fly that our travels would take us by this stricken town and we decided, if the timing worked out, we would stop into town to give a little business.

Indeed, we had wandered into the Joplin area right around lunch, and we turned off Interstate 44 onto State Route 43. We did not know the exact path that the tornado had taken through town, nor did we have any recent information about the rebuilding efforts, so as we wended our way toward downtown, we did not quite know what to expect.

Then, as the streets started dipping from the 40s into the 30s, the devastation emerged. The images of mangled trees, denuded of their higher branches, and barren property plots took our breath away at first, but we also spotted the signs of rebirth in the form of new construction. The instinct was to document what we were viewing, but we felt uncomfortable with this notion; this wasn't a tourist attraction, after all. Our cameras stayed shuttered as we drove into town, and on the way out when we mirrored the tornado's path along the historic Route 66.

Downtown Joplin lay north of the tornado's path of destruction. The lazy bustle we found here seemed like any other weekday that typify the days that lie between Christmas and New Year's Day, save for the fact that the whole city was trying to find its collective feet again.

Outside of the Red Onion Cafe in Downtown Joplin
We scouted out The Red Onion, established in 1995 at 4th and Virginia Streets in downtown Joplin. The restaurant interior was comfortable, playing off their residence inside a 100-year-old building in a homey kind of way. Likewise, their American-styled menu contained some comfort food decadence in the form of their coconut-breaded and Arkansas smokehouse chicken dishes and what looked to be some decadent sweets. But since we had had a surplus of both richer dishes and various snacky items the prior days of this road trip, we went for a couple of their healthier-sounding salads in the form of their Harvest Spinach Apple and Mandarin Orange Salads. Both dishes were tasty and provided the break in the prevailing eating routine we had developed.

The waitstaff were very gracious and friendly, and quite appreciative that we had stopped by to give them some business. We asked about how the restaurant and the town were doing: they said customers were slowly starting to come back to dine, and overall the town was making progress in terms of rebuilding and returning back to a normal routine. While they acknowledged there was still plenty left to do, they remained hopeful it would get done.

Nowadays, Joplin is nearly all the way back; at the mark of the three year anniversary, a report by KYTV in Springfield, MO, reported that 90 percent of all the homes had been rebuilt, and that 450 of the 500 businesses that had been affected by the tornado had returned. St. John's Hospital (now known as Mercy), which was basically destroyed by the twister, has a new campus under construction that is slated for opening for 2015. And the Red Onion Cafe continues to serve food at its main location in Joplin and three Espressoria locations.

However, as noted in the KYTV report, the final steps are often the hardest, as donor dollars dry up (the Joplin Recovery Fund is still active and taking donations) and other disasters reach the national conscience, including Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the Moore, OK tornado of 2013. But even though those steps may be the toughest, it won't be for the lack of resolve and trying by the residents of Joplin and other communities who are struck by the unthinkable.

Joplin Recovery Fund
c/o Community Foundation of the Ozarks
P.O. Box 8960
Springfield, MO 65801
(888) 266-6815
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Red Onion Cafe
203 East 4th Street
Joplin, MO 64801
(417) 623-1004
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Red Onion Cafe on Urbanspoon

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