Bloomberg News

Obama Speaks in Tornado-Ravaged Joplin a Year After Storm

May 22, 2012

President Barack Obama told the graduating class of Joplin High School in Missouri that its community’s spirit is a “source of inspiration” for a city rebuilding after a deadly tornado destroyed schools, homes and churches a year ago.

“You’ve learned at a younger age than most that we can’t always predict what life has in store for us,” Obama said last night at the campus of Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. “But here in Joplin, you’ve also learned that we have the power to grow from these experiences.”

“We can define our own lives not by what happens to us, but by how we respond,” he said. “We can choose to carry on and make a difference in the world.”

At the commencement ceremony, held at the university because the tornado destroyed Joplin High School a day after graduation last year, Obama honored the memory of the victims and praised the city’s resilience.

With winds of more than 200 miles-per-hour, the deadliest tornado since 1950 flattened about one-third of Joplin one year ago today, killing 161 people. Obama shook the hands of the graduating students before the ceremony began.

“Today, more than half the stores that were damaged on the Range Line are up and running again,” he said. “And every time a company re-opens its doors, people cheer the cutting of a ribbon that bears the town’s new slogan: ‘Remember. Rejoice. Rebuild.’”

A Greater Cause

Obama urged the graduates to remember how the devastation forced them to think of a cause greater than themselves. Seared by tragedy, he said, the students were also blessed by the knowledge that the well of human charity runs deep.

“You’ll always remember that in a town of 50,000 people, nearly 50,000 more came to help in the weeks after the tornado,” he said. “Perfect strangers who’ve never met you and would never ask for anything in return.”

Obama arrived in Joplin last night after a two-day summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Chicago, where leaders discussed the next stage of transition for the war in Afghanistan.

Last night’s address, with its focus on community and compassion, marked a departure from the international diplomacy over Afghanistan and Group of Eight communiques on the European debt crisis that consumed the president’s agenda during the previous four days. It was also an interlude in the presidential campaign’s overt partisan politics.

“There is such a decency, a bigness of spirit, in this country of ours,” Obama said. “Remember that. Remember what people did here.”

While last year’s tornado was devastating to Joplin, it ranks well behind the deadliest tornado in U.S. history. That one cut a 291-mile path across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925, killing 695, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hans Nichols in Joplin, Missouri at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at

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