(JOPLIN, Mo.) — President Obama returned to Joplin, Mo., Monday night, one year after a monster tornado leveled the town on high school graduation day, to celebrate its remarkable recovery and the first class of graduates since the storm.
“As I look out at this class, and across this city, what’s clear is that you’re the source of inspiration today — to me, to this state, to this country, and to people all over the world,” Obama said at Joplin High School’s 2012 commencement ceremony, where he was the keynote speaker.
“By now, most of you have probably relived those 32 minutes again and again,” he said of the twister, a mile-wide EF-5 that tore across the region with winds over 200 miles per hour. “Where you were. What you saw. When you knew for sure that it was over.
“And yet, the story of Joplin isn’t just the story of what happened the next day,” Obama said. “It’s the story of what happened the next day, and the day after that. And all the days and weeks and months that followed.”
The president, who visited Joplin in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 storm, hailed the resilience of the community in the wake of devastating loss — 161 killed, more than 8,000 homes and businesses destroyed, and more than $2.8 billion in damage.
Over the past 12 months, Joplin has undertaken a massive clean-up and rebuilding effort that has slowly and steadily produced signs of healing, but challenges and scars remain.
The graduating class of high school students completed their studies in temporary classrooms set up at a local mall. The town’s hospital, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, and hundreds of family homes have yet to be rebuilt.
Meteorologists say the storm was one of the deadliest and most expensive in U.S. history.
But Obama made clear it was not the historic nature of the storm but a recovery effort marked by “kindness and generosity and quiet service” that would be the defining characteristic of the tragedy.
“You’ll remember that in a town of 50,000 people, nearly 50,000 more came to help in to help the weeks after the tornado — perfect strangers who’ve never met you, and didn’t ask for anything in return,” Obama said.
“One man traveled all the way from Japan, because he remembered that Americans were there for his country after last year’s tsunami, and he wanted the chance he said to pay it forward,” he said.
The president acknowledged the thousands of Americans who came to the aid of Joplin, including AmeriCorps volunteers, a state college football team, even Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who made a $500,000 donation to rebuilding effort.
He also gave a nod to the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally in the Middle East, which provided new laptops for the city’s school and a $5 million donation to help rebuild a hospital.
“There are so many good people in the world. There is such a decency, a bigness of spirit, in this country of ours,” Obama said. “So, Class of 2012, you’ve got to remember that. Remember what people did here. And like the man from Japan who came to Joplin, make sure in your own life that you pay it forward.”
President Obama also said the Joplin story has a message about the “power of community” to bridge divisions among people and achieve common goals.
“My deepest hope for all of you is that as you begin this new chapter in your life, you will bring that spirit of Joplin to every place you travel, to everything you do,” Obama told the graduates.
“You can serve as a reminder that we’re not meant to walk this road alone; that we’re not expected to face down adversity by ourselves. We need God, we need each other,” he said, hinting at a message that has been a tagline of his re-election campaign.
“We’re important to each other,” he added. “And we’re stronger together than we are on our own.”
Obama exhorted the Class of 2012 to apply the same spirit underpinning a drive to rebuild Joplin to “help rebuild America.”
“America will only succeed if we all pitch in and pull together,” he said. “And I’m counting on you to be leaders in that effort. Because you are from Joplin, and you’ve already defied the odds.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio