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In the Path of the Storm: A month after the tornado, one Bend man is still helping out in Joplin, Missouri 

Josh Hart rallies the community of Bend to help tornado victims in Joplin, Missouri.

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When Josh Hart arrived in Joplin, Missouri, after a four-day haul from Bend, he quickly realized that he hadn't fully prepared himself for what he was going to see. And smell. Just a week earlier, the city of about 50,000 people had been devastated by one of the most deadly and destructive tornados in our country's history. Hart knew this, but still, he wasn't primed for the experience.

"When I got here, it looked like the tornado had just left. It's indescribable. Everything is dirt and rubble for a mile wide and seven miles long. When you stand in the middle of it, you see nothing but complete destruction," says Hart. "There are no words to describe the stench of rotting corpses, animals and food."

The tornado - one of many that ravaged the Midwest this spring - hit Joplin in the early evening hours of Sunday, May 22. Currently, there have been 153 deaths attributed to the tornado, but that number could increase as remains continue to be found below the piles of rubble, many of which have yet to be combed through. The impact of the tornado hits home upon glancing through the obituary section of the Joplin Globe's website, which is populated with far too many young faces of people killed on May 22. The videos of the tornado shot by survivors are also horrifying, to say the least, but not nearly as horrific as the devastation Hart witnessed, even days after the storm had left the city.

"There's nothing a human can do to prepare themselves for what they can see here. These people went through a meat grinder," says Hart, having just finished a long day of work in the oppressive heat and humidity that's engulfed Joplin for most of the time following the tornado - providing just one more challenge to an already overly challenged community.

Hart didn't have to go to Joplin, but after speaking with friends who had family in Joplin and learning about the deaths of so many people, including one nine-year-old boy that particularly touched him, Hart decided he wanted to help. But he didn't write a check to the Red Cross, like many of us might after disasters like this. Rather, Hart went on a four-day tear during which he rallied the community of Bend to gather food and supplies, which he would personally deliver to the people of Joplin. Soon, he was in a truck donated by Robberson Ford and a trailer from Deschutes Auto Sales and began a trip through California and New Mexico to gather more supplies before finally making it to Joplin after what turned out to be a 2,600-plus-mile journey.

When he finally arrived, canned food and supplies in tow, the 36-year-old Hart, a self-described "do-gooder" who makes his living as a touring musician and also runs the nonprofit organization, Operation Elf Box, and the clothing company Make it Habit, didn't waste time before lending a hand. He helped with cleanup and prayed with people who'd lost friends and family in the tornado, organized a motocross show and did anything else he could to help. One day, he came across a nine-month-pregnant woman and her husband at a McDonald's. Their home had been leveled and they'd run out of money for a hotel, but Hart was able to write them a check and get them some temporary shelter.

When he finally arrived, canned food and supplies in tow, the 36-year-old Hart, a self-described "do-gooder" who makes his living as a touring musician and also runs the nonprofit organization, Operation Elf Box, and the clothing company Make it Habit, didn't waste time before lending a hand. He helped with cleanup and prayed with people who'd lost friends and family in the tornado, organized a motocross show and did anything else he could to help. One day, he came across a nine-month-pregnant woman and her husband at a McDonald's. Their home had been leveled and they'd run out of money for a hotel, but Hart was able to write them a check and get them some temporary shelter.

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All the while, he's been sleeping in parking lots or in homes of generous Joplin residents, trying to keep his own expenses down so that more of his funds can go to people in need, but also to keep him in touch with the victims of the tornado. While his resources and skills have been helpful for the people of this devastated community, Hart says that the residents of Joplin are thankful just to see someone from so far away come out to help them.

"One old boy told me that the best thing that we could have done was just to show up with the Oregon license plate. Just to know that Oregon people showed up to say that we love them meant a lot to them," says Hart.

Impressively, Hart has been able to rally several different people and organizations - both in Bend and elsewhere - to help the people of Joplin, and do so in a direct manner. When we spoke last Friday, Reser's Fine Foods was in the process of shipping several pallets of food to Joplin for a community feast and Hart had also secured 12 guitars and $5,000 in cash from Bend-based Breedlove Guitars to begin youth music programs. In a way, Hart's one-man mission has made him an emissary from Bend, connecting these two communities that have little in common and are separated by almost 2,000 miles. He's thinking of building a home in Joplin with funds and resources from Bend, calling it, as of now, the House that Bend Built.

Hart has also gathered more than 700 pieces of video that he hopes to compile into a documentary that gives the world an inside look at the struggles the people of Joplin have endured. To shoot part of the film, he went into the sky in an ultra-light airplane and shot the damage from above, giving an idea of the miles-long path of destruction the tornado created, which included decimating one of the city's hospitals. The images from the wreckage, like the ones on this page, are shocking, but more shocking when one realizes that this is what much of Joplin still looks like, even though the tornado came through a month ago.

Not surprisingly, Hart says there is still plenty of work to be done. In fact, the cleanup of the flattened homes and vehicles has just begun and many of the folks who once occupied those houses are homeless. While he plans to return to Bend in the coming weeks to begin a concert tour, at least a part of Hart's mind will likely remain in Joplin, where the seeds of hope he helped to plant in the town continue to grow. But while he's still on the ground in Joplin, he's making the most of his time - before he returns to Missouri again later this summer.

"Right now, I'm just trying to see how I can contribute to this community. Let me go impact this community in a way that's direct," says Hart.

How You Can Help

To donate to Josh Hart's efforts in Joplin, visit makeithabit.com and hit the "Donate" button near the top of the screen.

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