Forrest Gump in Joplin

Mama always said, dying was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t.  — Forrest Gump

Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump.  Stuff seems to happen wherever I go.

Gudgeon (SS-567) underway, circa 1970s

Tang-class Submarine, via Wikipedia

At the time of the Cuban Missile crisis I was on diesel-electric submarine in Hawaii.  I recall loading war-shot torpedoes and supplies for a 90-day patrol.  Never did that before.  We had to stack some canned goods in the passageways for lack of space.  I was a Navy “Test Engineer” for the SSBN DASO operations during the Apollo space program when we lived on the base at Patrick AFB.  I was on an advanced-design (Tang class) diesel-electric submarine out of Charleston not long after the loss of  Thresher and Scorpion when we almost lost the boat coming out of overhaul on our first test dive.  (The shipyard miscalculated the ballast.)

I was navigator on the heavy cruiser Saint Paul at the peak of Vietnam in 1969.  I was Executive Officer of the NROTC Unit at the University of Kansas when the anti-war passions were at a peak.  I got a job making satellite batteries in Joplin when the market for commercial and military satellites exploded.  And now, here I am in the town that just experienced the worst tornado in Missouri history.  It was just classified an EF-5, the top of the scale.

Something interesting happens psychologically when bad things happen.  The world shrinks down to what we have to deal with.  Forget Pakistan, Lindsay Lohan, OPEC, Dancing with the Stars, Osama, the Royal Wedding, Katie Couric’s job problems.  We got trouble right here in River City, with a capital T, and that stands for Tornado.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Resized, renamed,...

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, via Wikipedia

Abraham Maslow published a landmark study in 1943 having discovered in a study of healthy people a basic truth about human motivation.  People conform to a hierarchy of needs, beginning with things like food, clothing and shelter of course, but followed at the next level by “safety” needs such as security of body, employment, morality, family, health and property.  When lower-level needs are filled we naturally become motivated by the next higher level, the lower one then taken for granted.  At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is “self-actualization” which includes morality, creativity and other intellectual functions.  But when disasters occur, either collectively or personal, I have observed that it’s quite natural for people to slide from a higher level back down to a lower one.  I would say that Joplin has slid back down to the “safety” level for now.  

Even though our house didn’t get hit, Mollie and I are right down there in the safety level with those who did get hit.  Our perspective has changed.  We find ourselves suddenly grateful for telephone, lights, heat, water out of the tap, togetherness in shopping for necessities.  I find myself feeling a sense of guilty luxury in it all.

Do you know, the Postal Service delivered mail to our house Monday, the day after the tornado!  I marvel at that small but significant event, evidence that society’s structure is resilient.  Amidst the destruction people are gamely going about their jobs, determined to keep civilization together.  We were in the Webb City Wal-Mart yesterday to get groceries.  It was double-busy and the staff was gamely stocking shelves, hauling in bottle water and foodstuffs.  People had a general grim look, and in that was determination, a determination that they were not going to let this disaster get the best of them.  We are a Missouri tribe, united as one to get through this.

This is the kind of stuff that brought people together in WWII, that made the greatest generation.  It’s happening again, at least on this momentary and notable point in history as we rise to the challenge of previously unthinkable damage.  And some of us Forrest Gumps are here again to watch it all unfold.  What a ride.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to Forrest Gump in Joplin

  1. jwhester says:

    Thanks for giving props to the postal service. They don’t get recognition very often.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right, JW. It now occurs to me that I should also give an Attaboy to Joplin’s trash service – picked up on time the day after T day. Joplin has been blessed with good management under Mark Rohr, City Manager, good police under Chief Lane Roberts, and a good county Sheriff’s force under Sheriff Archie Dunn. You always hear about the screw-ups but, as you say, the good guys don’t get a lot of recognition.



  2. Jim,

    Are there any local relief or aid organization that you could provide a link to for those of who might make a contribution????


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks for the offer, Bruce. My answer may surprise you.

      There are all types of aid flowing into Joplin in the form of clothing, food, bottled water, debris clean-up squads, etc. FEMA and the Red Cross are here in full force. I do not believe there is any immediate need for your donation now, BUT there is going to be a desperate need to rebuild Joplin Schools, probably more than $100 million. Right now I can’t find any indication of how the officials expect to do that, but it will become clear with time. I recommend waiting a while and if you still have the impulse, that would be the best target for your generosity.

      While I know that charities like the Red Cross do vital work in disasters I have long been a critic of their lack of accountability for donated money and excessive executive salaries. Based on an AIP rating guide from last year, the Red Cross spent $22 to raise every $100, not bad but not the best either.

      Thanks for caring. – Jim


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      As predicted, a fund has been established under Joplin city auspices for help in rebuilding our devastated schools. Given the surprisingly smooth management of the disaster so far, I have every reason to think that this would be the most efficient venue to help. Here is the link:



  3. ansonburlingame says:


    My guess on rebuilding schools is that it will be massive federal aid, probably in the form of loans and perhaps some outright grants or “free money”. I will be surprised if raising taxes this year or next for new schools will be an issue before us on the ballot as it was seemingly going to be before the storm.

    That of course offers up a whole range of debate regarding federal aid in disasters.

    For sure our local property taxes can in NO WAY support rebuilding schools in any reasonable time frame. Among other things we have lost at least 30% of our tax base on property. No one will be payin taxes on a demolished building and some relief from taxes on just the land must be arranged.

    Normally State and Federal largress would rebuild schools for us. But of course neither the State or Federal government have the money to do so any longer with all the other “routine” obligations still on the books.

    So who provides the money to rebuild, China???

    Over the last few decades it is axiomatic for locals to expect massive federal aid in such events. People expect to “get out of jail free” with such aid and have done so for a long time now. Just the levees alone in New Orleans came with a $14 Billion price tag to rebuild and now local, state and federal officials are arguing about who now pays for maintenance of the new levees.

    It is a very complex issue and for sure the need is great to rebuild as soon as possible. But the operative word now is “possible”. To call for the federal government to simply write checks on accounts with no revenue to back them up is again, axiomatic in our world today.

    But the question MUST be asked, where exactly is the money suppose to come from now and in the future. I don’t know the answer, but business as usual no longer seems possible to me based on again how we have handled disasters in the recent decades.

    I would love to hear constructive ideas on this issue in these blogs, rather than just an automatic demand for MORE from the Federal Government regardless of the quality of the federal bank account today.



    • Moe says:

      Anson, raising taxes is probably what we have to do. We as a people, as a natiojn, thorugh our elected representatives, made the committments, allowed the debt and didn’t demand accountability. We own the problem.

      And now State and local governments are being hit hard.

      A country should provide certain services for its people – Jim mentioned the Post Office. Perfect example.

      Unless we’re willing to say we can’t find funds to rebuild Joplin’s schools – which should be unacceptable – I think we should raise taxes.


  4. People expect to “get out of jail free” with such aid”

    Isn’t arguably a kind social insurance for a risk most of us face? Almost all area have a potential for natural disasters. Where I live (Oregon) earthquakes are likely the largest threat. In the Joplin and most of the midwest tornados are a threat. On the east coast, you face hurricanes.

    The likelyhood of each each these and the expected cost will very a bit and perhaps a more explicite insurance that we pay for in light of that risk would make more sense, but I don’t think I call a get out jail free card. That seems to imply a choice to be victim. That doesn’t seem fair.


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Both of you are in a way correct. But I am also correct, in my view, that business as usual in disaster relief needs deep thought and change. And who better to start the discussion other than the victims of such disasters.

    I will be blogging on more thoughts in that regard soon.



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