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Rebuilding Joplin, One Year After Tornadoes


As the sun rose in Joplin, Missouri, today, a sunrise service was held to commemorate emergency workers, hospital staff, survivors and the 161 killed in a monster tornado a year ago. Yesterday, President Obama delivered the commencement address at Joplin High School and praised the town for its spirit of perseverance and resilience. While much of the rubble has been cleared out and new houses and stores sprout up, scars remain, not all of them visible.

If you're in Joplin, if you visited, call and tell us a story that illustrates what happened and what's happened since? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Matt Pearce is a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times. He arrived in Joplin the morning after the tornado struck and returned a few times since. He joins us now from the studios of St. Louis Public Radio. Nice to have you with us today.

MATT PEARCE: Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And how does the town look a year later?

PEARCE: I actually drove through there a couple of days ago, and so much of the disaster zone, which stretches miles through the town, the land is bare, and it's sort of pocked by these new structures that have been built after the storm came through. It damaged or destroyed about 8,000 structures in the town of Joplin. And since then, it's been this battle for homeowners and businesses to decide, you know, are we going to move back in there? Are we going to have neighbors?

And you drive through there now and it's amazing how much the rubble has been cleared away since a year ago. When I first showed up the morning after the storm, I mean, it was horizon-to-horizon debris. You know, people who've lived there all their lives could not tell where they were inside the town. And now, a year later, so much - that - like 90 percent of that debris was cleared away just a few weeks after the storm, just a couple of months after the storm by the Army Corps of Engineers.

And now, I mean, if you drive through Rangeline, which is sort of the busy business district that goes through town, it has all the box stores there, you know, a year ago, you know, you look at the Home Depot and the Wal-Mart and the Academy Sports store that have been, you know, sort of right there at the epicenter of the storm, and they have just been crumpled into these massive steel and concrete sarcophagi. And now, it's like they've got shinny new duplicates in their places. You know, there's a Home Depot standing where the rubble of the old Home Depot was. There's a new Wal-Mart where the old Wal-Mart was.

When I was driving into town, you know, about a week ago, I came in sort of through a back road and it was very eerie to see those stores again standing in the same places that they were when I last saw them when, you know, emergency workers were using, you know, the saws and torches to cut through the rubble to get to crushed victims beneath. So the businesses in that area have - it's been sort of a heroic recovery effort in terms of, you know, restoring the town and restoring some of the business infrastructure there. But some of that leads to quiet dissonance among some of the survivors and residents of the town.

CONAN: You quoted one person driving into the parking lot of one of those big-box stores as saying it's a little creepy to see this brand-new structure where the previous building crushed eight people beneath it.

PEARCE: It's very creepy. You know, you walk in the store, and there's Carrie Underwood playing over the speakers, you know, where the front wall had been blown down by these 200-mile-per-hour winds from the tornado. You know, it killed people there. And, you know, now, you go in there and stand in there, and you can buy, you know, cleaning materials right by the front door. So, you know, there's someone there to greet you. So there's a definite psychic disconnect between, you know, what happened in that location a year ago and, you know, what's standing there now, which is, you know, this is what recovery looks like, but it's sort of a question of whether the physical recovery of the town, you know, the business recovery of the town keeps up with that psychological recovery of survivors.

It's interesting. One of the people you spoke with, Arielle Speer, was in the storm and says not even her family members who are from Joplin understand quite what she went through.

Yeah. Exactly. She's an interesting story. I ran into her about a day or two after the tornado hit, and she, you know, she didn't have any shoes. She have this tiny, floppy little pair of flip-flops, and is on the side of Connecticut Avenue, and I'd ran into her and her phone wasn't working. And she was kind of going in and out of tears, and she was waiting for a FEMA guy to come by so she could talk about her apartment, which had just been obliterated, turned into this, you know, crooked, ziggurat of rubble right across the street from where we were.

And I ran into her a year later at a documentary showing of the damage that the tornado had wrought, you know, sort of a year later, the town is going through this process of telling itself stories about what happened to it, which I kind of found an interesting process. You know, so many of this people in the audience of this documentary premiere that I went to had survived the storm, have lost houses in the storm. They'd put up friends and neighbors who had lost houses. You know, this is something that impacted everyone there, and yet they decided to go back and remember it, and they're watching this horrifying footage of, you know, 200-mile-per-hour winds that were, you know, just destroying buildings and snapping trees in half and bending them horizontal.

And, you know, she was having a panic attack before the movie had even started. You know, she, you know, people are still filing into the auditorium, you know, the lights were up, and she was having anxiety and creating problems and just waiting for the film to start, 'cause she knew what she was about to sit through. But this, you know, she told me this is part of her recovery process. You know, she needed to re-expose herself to what happened.

And, you know, Arielle Speer also went back to her apartment building that had been destroyed, you know, where I'd met her a year ago. And she even dug up a rose bush around the building because the area that had been slated for demolition as, you know, as has - like most of the town has been bulldozed at this point. And, you know, she dug up a rose bush because she needed some kind of physical, tangible reminder of what had happened to her because, you know, this is all evidence. It sorts of explain the way that she is now, you know, explain the problems of anxiety that she'd had after the storm.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you're in Joplin, if you visited, well, call and tell us a story that explains some of what happened and what's happened since. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Steve with us from Stillwater, Oklahoma.

STEVE: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Steve. Go ahead.

STEVE: I was in about 45 minutes away from Joplin at a retreat with the staff that I serve at a church from Stillwater, Oklahoma. We have a lot of connections in Joplin. There was, for example, a Jamaican friend of mind whose sister and husband had settled there. And when we saw the news, we decided we were going to go there. There were about nine of us. So we loaded up in the midst of the rainstorm - it was still ongoing - brought boots and gloves and water and just relief supplies and things for the baby. They had a young baby. And so we went to the home of this family, which was nothing but a bare piece of concrete, and started digging out clothes and items out of their home. They had decided to leave their home about 10 minutes before the tornado hit, and they went to stay with a friend that was just outside where the tornado hit.

The devastation was not like anything I've ever seen. There were no familiar landmarks for a number of people that were with me, lived in Joplin for a time, going to college there. One of them was actually a professor at the bible college. And people were spray-painting the names of the streets on the intersections because you couldn't tell where you were from looking around. It was like a nuclear bomb that had gone off. I've never seen devastation like this.

CONAN: Have you been back?

STEVE: We went back about a week ago for the - a funeral and drove through and saw the, you know, the Wal-Mart standing again as the previous caller was talking about, the Home Depot was back up, and both of those were just obliterated. And it was a little bit surreal to see the brand-new structures up and commerce up and going, rubble cleared. You know, it didn't look like the same place at all.

CONAN: It's interesting. And your friends, they're doing OK?

STEVE: They're doing OK. I believe they'd decided to stay and rebuild. I don't know if they're going to actually rebuild on the site the home was on before, but the entire neighborhood they lived in was just completely gone. And in that day, as we talked to them, you know, it wasn't clear whether they would be able to rebuild there. The power was all gone, you know, no idea how long it would take to restore power. And as we went through neighborhoods, taking, you know, just giving cold water to people that needed it that lived in the area, you know, search and rescue was working the area, just - it was completely surreal. But, yeah, I believe they're still there and doing fine.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad to hear that, Steve. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

STEVE: Thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: And, Matt Pearce, Steve's call illustrates the role that Christian organizations, both impromptu on the day of and throughout this past year have played in the recovery there in Joplin.

PEARCE: Yeah. You know, church groups really drove a lot of the relief effort. And, you know, and Joplin's, you know, it's in southwest Missouri. It's a really - I mean, politically, it's conservative, but this is also, you know, a very - a town of strong faith. And you talk to a lot of people about, you know, what the storm means to Joplin and, you know, for a lot of people, they see the storm, you know, they don't want the storm to define the town. But for them, the storm really revealed what the town's character was, which was, you know, we are, you know, we are a small community that cares for each other, and this is what we do, you know, through faith, and they're very proud of that, you know, it's part of their identity now.

And I think it's pretty interesting. There's a little sensitivity too. You know, the - at the premiere of the documentary I was at, the one applause line throughout the movie was when one of the survivors of the storm said, you know, I don't - it's not particularly politically correct to say this, but, you know, I really hand it to the church groups that came in and helped get Joplin back on its feet. And you're talking, you know, groups that's come all over the country both, you know, in Joplin, in Missouri and throughout the Midwest and all over. And the crowd really started applauding and pat - I mean, it's something they're very proud of.

CONAN: And here's an email from Craig: I grew up just south of Joplin and went to college there. My family still lives south of Joplin. I've been back several times since the tornado happened. It's difficult to take in. My mind wants to see all the buildings that would normally be there, but they're gone. The trees are gone. The landscape is totally different. I visited sick friends and family in the old St. John's Hospital that is now in rubble. Memories are everywhere that are now gone. But we recently went back and so the park the "Extreme Home Makeover" team built, and there were people and kids everywhere. Buildings going on all over town. It makes tears come to my eyes to see destruction and hope all right there together. Joplin is an old mining town with a very hard-work ethic, and I know they will make it. God bless, Joplin.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Christine's on the line with us from Lansing in Michigan.


CONAN: Hi, Christine.

CHRISTINE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Unfortunately, I think I might lose you. My battery has gone low on my cell phone, but I just wanted to share with you. I went down there. I took a load of stuff in my Suburban and went down there in June, or excuse me, July of last year. And, wow, I can tell you, when I first got there - the reason why I went was because I felt compelled to have to do something. And when I went there - as a veteran, I've seen many things, but I tell you, I felt like I was a the war zone. It just took my breath away, and I got to admit I cried. I just couldn't believe the devastation.

So I joined up with a church that was there, and we ended up going house to house right there, not parallel, but from 26th where - 26th Street where a lot of things happened. We're handing out hygiene kits, and I've gotten to a lady's house, and I looked to my left and it was just like no rooftops in any of the houses. And I was asking the lady if she thought there was anybody down that way that needed hygiene kits, and she just looked at me and she goes, oh, honey, that's where a lot of the people were killed, and it was like a punch in my stomach. I looked at her, and I just about fell to my knees. I was just so shaken.

And she had told me her story and how the tornado had hit just behind her house and then ripped through. And I looked at the house to the right of her and the chimney was gone. And she saw me looked up and she said, yeah, that landed in my bathroom. And I looked at the side of her house, and you could see this big, huge, gaping hole where the guy's chimney next door had gone through her - I mean it ripped through the whole side of her house.

And I just - when I went back in September and was able to connect with a few people and heard some more stories. And I guess, one of the ones that I would really like to share is a lady had covered her children with a mattress and her body and when the tornado passed, that they all survived. Thank God. They had described seeing little white butterflies all around them. And there was more than one family member, or excuse me, more than one family that would - that talked about these white butterflies. And to this day, I don't think anybody can prove or unprove(ph) what they saw or what it was that they saw, but I don't know. My opinion, I think it was just little guardian angels watching over them.

CONAN: Well, maybe something was.


CONAN: Christine, thanks very much for the call.

CHRISTINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Matt Pearce, after terrible incidents like this, you always hear the politicians, local and state and, of course, national politicians - and President Obama was there last night - say, we will help you through this. We will be there, not just today but tomorrow. You mentioned the role of the Army Corps of Engineers. Are the people in Joplin satisfied with the kind of help that they've been getting from state and federal authorities?

PEARCE: You know, the impression I get is one of satisfaction. You know, after the storm, I had not heard any notable complaints against, you know, the state or federal government. You know, there's still a little grousing. I would say from what I've heard from people in Joplin now, you know, their biggest problems are with insurance. You know, they have to argue with the insurance guy over whether, you know, the damage in their homes was caused by the tornado was - or whether the damage was caused by, you know, neglect after the storm or, you know, some other form of damage. You know, it's just a nightmare of paperwork for a lot of people still and, you know, the problem of insurance.

When I went down there last time, I met this firefighter from Colombia, Missouri, who'd grown up in Joplin. And right now, he's trying to save his boyhood home. You know, his family was there when the storm hit, and he'd actually - this firefighter's name, Walt Goodman - had come down right after the storm at one of the state's heavy rescue teams and, you know, had been digging for survivors and only got to check on his family home about a day later. And, you know, his dad died a little bit after the storm with respirator problems. I think it was something having to do with the tornado. And now, this firefighter is trying to save the house, but he needed the money to relocate his mom closer to him, her health wasn't good. And so now he has to fight the city's demolition crews away from his house long enough to save it. I mean, if - even if he sells it, just having it there is going to be a tribute to his dad.

CONAN: Matt Pearce, thanks very much for your time.

PEARCE: Thank you.

CONAN: Matt Pearce, a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times. Tomorrow, the Political Junkie. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.