NASCAR’s McMurray visits tornado-ravaged hometown

NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray returned to his boyhood home – or

at least to the spot where it used to stand. Like much of

tornado-ravaged Joplin, it didn’t look anything like the place

where he grew up.

McMurray visited the devastated southwest Missouri town

Thursday, hoping to lift the spirits of residents trying to put

their lives back together and raise awareness of ongoing needs in

the area.

”It’s not just the destruction that will stick with me, even

though that’s bad,” McMurray said, in a telephone interview with

The Associated Press on Thursday night. ”It’s the stories I

heard.”

McMurray said he was stunned by the level of destruction and

heartbreaking stories of lost lives, but inspired by the large

number of volunteers who drove in from across the country to help

with relief efforts.

And McMurray said the area will need help for years to come.

”The fear is, at about this point, the national (media)

coverage is leaving,” McMurray said. ”They’re not the headline

right now.”

Missouri officials said Thursday that the death toll from the

May 22 tornado has risen to 138 people. More than 8,000 homes and

apartments, and more than 500 commercial properties, were damaged

or destroyed.

”I met people today that lost their home, and that was one

level,” McMurray said. ”And then you meet people who lost kids,

or a sister, or a brother. And that’s a whole different

level.”

McMurray said he spoke with one couple who lost two of their

three children.

”I told them, ‘I don’t know what to say to you,”’ McMurray

said. ”We started hugging. It’s weird how you wanted to hug them.

But you don’t know what to say.”

McMurray said tornado warnings were common in Joplin growing up,

but the worst storms always seemed to avoid a direct hit on the

town.

”How many times has there been a tornado go just north, or just

south, or it doesn’t touch down?,” he said.

As a child, McMurray remembers huddling in the bathtub with his

family, covered by a mattress, during particularly threatening

storms.

But when he spoke to the family who bought his childhood home,

he found out that they took shelter in a hallway – and given what

happened to the rest of the house, which had only a few walls left

standing, that decision might have saved their lives.

With a race coming up in Kansas this weekend, McMurray expected

to have a hard time getting to sleep Thursday night. But while he

won’t forget the scenes of destruction and stories of tragedy,

he’ll also remember the kindness of volunteers.

”I think it makes you really proud to be an American, to see

different people around the country come to help,” McMurray

said.

During McMurray’s visit to his former home, an unknown man drove

up in a truck, handed over an envelope to the home’s current

owners, then drove away. Inside the envelope was $200.

”And that guy was going around to every single house in the

neighborhood,” McMurray said.