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Joplin begins sorting through the big tasks ahead

By DON BRADLEY
The Kansas City Star

JOPLIN, Mo. | St. John’s Regional Medical Center, ravaged by Sunday’s tornado, will be rebuilt, and Joplin schools plan to start on time in August.

Volunteers by the thousands are pouring into the city to help with search and rescue, to clean up and care for the displaced.

Those were among the promising developments Wednesday. The death toll from Sunday’s EF5 tornado stands now at 125 with more than 900 injured, City Manager Mark Rohr said at an evening news conference.

Tornado strength is measured by an enhanced F-scale rating from EF0 to EF5. An EF2 or higher is considered a significant tornado.

Rohr could not provide a number for people displaced or for those with no jobs to go to. As for the massive cleanup that waits, Rohr said officials were working on a plan, but could not provide specifics such as where the millions of tons of debris would go.

Power outages remain a problem. At last count, 14,000 customers were without electricity in Joplin, the Empire District Electric Co. said. About 10,000 of those were inside the tornado’s path of destruction, and they might be without service “for the foreseeable future,” the company said in a prepared statement.

St. John’s, looking like something in a war-torn country, has become the visual image of the tornado that leveled more than one-fourth of the city, with the hospital taking a direct shot.

“It looked like a bomb exploded inside,” said Sean Smith, an emergency physician.

President and CEO Gary Pulsipher said St. John’s, in Joplin since 1896, would build a facility that was better than ever.

Superintendent C.J. Huff said five of the Joplin district’s 19 schools were a “total loss.” Those include: Joplin High School, Franklin Technology Center, South Middle, Irving Elementary and Emerson Elementary.

East Middle and Cecil Floyd Elementary sustained significant damage, Huff said.

School has been canceled for the rest of this academic year, but Huff said the district plans to open the 2011-2012 year on time, in 84 days. The district is looking at places to put students, possibly including industrial spaces.

Huff estimated it would cost more than $100 million to replace the buildings, let alone all the computers and other equipment that goes in them.

In other developments, FEMA has opened an office in a Methodist church at Fourth Street and Byars Avenue.

The city also announced a business recovery center will open today to assist business owners damaged by the tornado. Officials with the Small Business Administration will be on hand with details of low-interest loans.

The city on Wednesday scrapped a permit plan for anyone entering the hardest-hit areas when thousands of residents, volunteers and workers overwhelmed sign-up sites.

“It was good idea, but became too cumbersome,” Joplin Police Chief Lane Roberts said.

Out of concerns of possible looting, authorities launched the plan to keep a strict accounting of anyone entering the most-affected areas. Residents who can stay in their homes are reluctant to leave and shop owners are standing guard, although reports of looting have been sparse.

Lines at the four sign-up sites for the permits started at 6 a.m. and three hours later ran 400 to 500 people deep.

They were asked to show ID, vehicle type and purpose for being in the area. The slow pace frustrated those in line.

“But we want to get back in and get what stuff we can,” said Susan Warden.

The tornado blew out her windows and took her roof.

“We had other people’s siding in our house,” she said.

Then she asked: “Is this Wednesday?”

The Star’s Eric Adler and James Hart contributed to this report. To reach Don Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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