JOPLIN, Mo. — On his first day back in the U.S. following a six-day diplomatic tour of Europe, President Barack Obama made a beeline for Joplin, where he offered comfort and hope to a grief-stricken city.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Joplin will rebuild,” Obama said Sunday at a memorial service at Missouri Southern State University. “As president, I can tell you that your country will be there with you every single step of the way.
“We’re not going anywhere.”
A capacity crowd of 2,000 at the Taylor Performing Arts Center on the university campus greeted the president with a standing ovation and cheered him repeatedly throughout his 10-minute address.
His remarks and walking tour of some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods came on the one-week anniversary of the killer tornado that claimed more than 130 lives — and counting.
“The cameras may leave. The spotlight may shift,” Obama said. “But we will be with you every step of the way until Joplin is restored and this community is back on its feet.”
Residents said they were thrilled that the president flew to their city and said his visit boosted morale.
“It’s nice to know he has our back,” said Angela Borchardt, 24. “That’s what I think the people of Joplin need to hear. He’s absolutely trying to take care of us at a time everything we have is gone.”
Nathan Gideon, 29, described the president’s visit as “awesome. We’re not alone. After that devastation, that’s what everyone feels.”
Stephanie Kerby said she appreciated the president’s visit on top of all the help from so many others.
“Hopefully his attention will bring some more aid,” she said.
Obama arrived in Joplin shortly after noon Sunday with Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate in tow. He was joined by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill for a motorcade tour that zipped directly from the regional airport to the 22nd and Kentucky neighborhood.
There, Obama was able to look to the east for a panoramic view of the storm’s devastating path.
The president showed little emotion, but when he stopped to talk to reporters for the first time, he admitted the damage was every bit as bad as he expected.
“Obviously,” he said in his first words, “the scene speaks for itself.”
He then compared Joplin with the damage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., portions of which were flatted by a tornado last month. He said the destruction in Alabama was the worst he had ever seen — until he arrived in Joplin.
“It (the damage in Joplin) is just as heartbreaking and in some ways more devastating,” Obama said.
As the president spoke, the continuous revving of chain saws could be heard in the background. Trees and poles bent east in deference to the tornado’s 200 mph winds. Many homes, their roofs torn away by the winds, were covered with blue tarps.
On the corner to the right of where the president spoke was a streetlight pole. The light had been ripped away, leaving only a bare wire bobbing in the stiff southern breeze.
The road back, Obama noted, will be a “tough, long slog.”
Later, at the memorial service, ministers, choirs and Nixon offered words of comfort to a crowd that included squealing infants and impatient youngsters.
Nixon insisted that the people of Missouri, known for their stubbornness and self-reliance, “were born for this mission.”
He said that no storm or fire can stop Missourians “once we have set our resolve” and that the notion of people helping their neighbors had come to see new meaning in the storm’s wake.
The Rev. Aaron Brown, who saw his St. Paul’s United Methodist Church converted into a triage center, told the audience that it may appear at times that death triumphed in Joplin. But, he insisted, it did not.
“Death doesn’t win — ever,” he said. “Even when you think it does. Even if it looks like death wins, it doesn’t. Life wins.”
Jesus, the reverend added, “took our punch for us.”
In his address at the university, Obama told the audience that no one knows why people are tested when they are. “These things are beyond our power to control,” he said.
But, the president said, the people of Joplin are not powerless in the face of such adversity. In fact, people have direct control over how they respond.
He talked about Joplin heroes such as Christopher Lucas, a 26-year-old father of two daughters who had a third child on the way. Lucas was working as a manager at Pizza Hut when the storm loomed, and he ushered his fellow employees into a walk-in freezer.
As the tornado bore down, Lucas scrounged around the store for something to tie the freezer door closed. Lucas, Obama said, found a cord, tied it to the door’s outside handle, and wrapped the other end around his arm. Obama said he held the door closed “with all his might” until he was “pulled away by the incredible force of the storm” and killed.
Lucas saved more than a dozen people inside the freezer.
“You see,” Obama said, “there are heroes all around us, all the time. They walk by us on the sidewalk and sit next to us in class.
“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, in a split-second moment 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.
“That’s good to know. In a world that can be cruel and selfish, it’s this knowledge that we are inclined to love one another, that we’re inclined to do good, to be good, that causes us to take heart.”
Obama ended by encouraging those in the audience to live up to the examples of those who perished “to make each day count, to live with a sense of mutual regard.”
“We are called by them to do everything we can to be worthy of the chance we’ve been given to carry on.”
He ended by reciting words from the spiritual “Amazing Grace,” a favorite song of another victim of Joplin.
“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come,” the president intoned. “ ’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
“May those we lost know peace, and may grace guide the people of Joplin home.”