Special Reports

Joplin: A city rising from the rubble

Dan Farren stood on his porch at 2206 Kentucky in Joplin, Mo. as construction on rebuilding his home continued on October 28, 2011 following the May 22nd EF-5 tornado in Joplin. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star
Dan Farren stood on his porch at 2206 Kentucky in Joplin, Mo. as construction on rebuilding his home continued on October 28, 2011 following the May 22nd EF-5 tornado in Joplin. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star The Kansas City Star

JOPLIN, Mo.| Winter creeps closer. Mark Rohr rises for another 13-hour day of work along “the destruction zone.”

Some call it “the dig site,” “the war zone,” “the scar.”

More hopeful residents like Rohr, Joplin’s city manager, reject all those names as too negative, inasmuch as they fail to recognize what he sees as the speedy and near miraculous clearing of mountains of debris, the businesses returning, the steady thwack of nail guns rebuilding homes.

It has been seven months since an EF5 tornado gouged a swath of death and destruction through a third of this southwest Missouri city, killing 161 people and injuring more than 900.

“I don’t do it anymore,” Rohr concedes, “but for a while, for maybe a month after the storm, I had this thing going on. I had this thing where I’d wake and think: ‘Did I dream this? Did it really happen?’ ”

Then, driving to work, his car would crawl into the heart of the zone where the ugly truth has given way to a new reality.

Slowly, painfully — with its future unsure, with thousands of lives still in upheaval — a new Joplin is rising from the rubble, proud of how far it has come, yet knowing that it has barely risen from its knees.

Last month, Congress approved some $400 million in community development block grants that Missouri can apply for to help rebuild parts of Joplin and flood-ravaged towns. Exactly how much Joplin might get remains unknown.

Insurers, meantime, have already paid out more than $1 billion in claims, with losses estimated at close to $2 billion.

“We would all love to be seven months into this and say everything is rebuilt and we’re all done,” Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a measured assessment. “But no one expected this to be a six- or seven-month recovery process. Realistically, we know this is going to be a several-year process. I would say, by and large, we are even ahead of schedule.”

As the year that will define Joplin for decades comes to a close, the city’s landscape is already transformed.

• • 

In May, Joplin was a scene of almost incomprehensible ruin: six miles of wreckage and denuded trees.

Today, there is — depending on one’s point of view and mood (and both can change frequently) — a vast and spirit-sapping emptiness or an encouraging, clean slate rumbling with early construction.

“It’s so amazing. Everything in the city is cleared in such a manner that you wouldn’t expect it to be,” said Sarah Reed, 31, whose parents’ home not far from 26th Street and Jefferson Avenue was leveled. “It’s clear. It’s ready for life.”

When Dan Farren, 62, stands next to his house, slowly being rebuilt by volunteers at 22nd and Kentucky, his view is unimpeded. He can see two miles to the west, all the way to the shell that was St. John’s Regional Medical Center, and two miles east to Range Line Road. Dead trees, hard-packed earth and flattened grass extend as far as the eye can see.

The city has been so busy trying to tend to the living that, a half-year after the storm, the century-old headstones in the cemetery north of where St. Mary’s Church once stood remained as the tornado left them, toppled onto graves.

Yet Farren, for one, is hardly depressed. “I’m hopeful,” he said. “I’m real hopeful.”

Ten Habitat for Humanity homes recently rose nearby, as did seven houses associated with ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” In the distance, one could see the straw hats and blue shirts of volunteer Amish and Mennonite carpenters framing a home as part of the Mennonite Disaster Service. They’re among the estimated 100,000 volunteers who, even now, continue to support the city.

“It’s still pretty barren here. But it’s getting better all the time,” Farren said.

As for achievements, city leaders have much to point to:

•  When federal officials arrived in Joplin seven months ago, they discovered leaders already working together, assessing the damage and trying to find the wounded and account for the dead. Because departments and people in this town had worked together for years, and worked with agencies in three nearby states, Joplin was already ahead, said Jerry Ostendorf, a section chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who oversaw field operations in Joplin.

“We didn’t have to start from scratch, which is very beneficial,” Ostendorf said. “And they are still working the issues for short- and long-term recovery and not calling it quits. We’ve not seen a chink in their armor as it relates to their ability to respond to the needs of people.”

Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston, a man who prefers to lead behind the scenes, says his town benefited by having dedicated residents and key leaders in place long before the sky turned gray that Sunday evening. Especially three in particular, Woolston says: City Manager Mark Rohr, school Superintendent C.J. Huff and Chamber of Commerce President Rob O’Brian.

“Look at the result. Look at where we are at,” Woolston says. “Everybody’s raving about our progress. You don’t get there just by accident.”

•  Most of the debris that smothered Joplin is gone — 3 million cubic yards. In an impressive three months, building rubble was separated and hauled. Electronics, appliances and toxic materials were stripped of toxins and valuable metals.

At peak operation, 806 trucks hauled debris from daylight to dusk to six area landfills.

Even excluding the 224,000 cubic yards of trees and shrubs hauled off in Joplin, the tornado still produced 1.2 million more cubic yards of debris than was hauled off in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack.

•  Thousands of trees shattered in the storm have been ground to mulch. Combined with dirt, the organic mix was spread in layers amid landfill debris. By mid-October, grass was already growing on new landfill hillocks.

•  Homes: 45 percent of those destroyed or damaged are now under permit to rebuild or repair; last month, though, only 460 of those were single-family houses. The question of how many of Joplin’s displaced residents will return remains a major worry. (After Greensburg, Kan., was destroyed by a tornado in 2007, only about half of its 1,450 residents returned.) But in some Joplin neighborhoods, including its more affluent and well-insured western edge, new homes are rising.

•  School is in session. Although the tornado destroyed six schools and severely damaged three more, the 2011-2012 school year began on time, 88 days later, with 11th- and 12th-graders starting fresh in a state-of the-art high school fashioned from an existing mall. Ninety-two percent of the district’s 7,500 students returned.

“The day the kids went back to school, you could hear the sigh of relief, you could hear it across Joplin: ‘Alleluia,’ ” said Debi Meeds, CEO of the Greater Ozarks Chapter of the American Red Cross. “That was huge for this community.”

•  The hollowed hulk of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, run by the Catholic order of the Sisters of Mercy, remains a part of Joplin’s landscape. Demolition of the old 367-bed hospital at 2727 McClelland Blvd. is set to begin in January and be completed in May.

A new St. John’s is to be built three miles south at 50th Street and Hearnes Boulevard and open in early 2015.

Meantime, land has been cleared near the old hospital. Parts of a temporary 120-bed facility have been erected. The land containing the destroyed St. John’s is being donated by the Sisters of Mercy and is expected to become the site of one of Joplin’s public schools, a community theater and, perhaps, a memorial park.

•  Joplin’s unemployment rate shot up to 8.9 percent in June, the month after the tornado — a 1.2 percentage point gain over May and the biggest one-month jump since June 2009. By October it had dropped back down to 7.3 percent, well below the statewide rate of 8.5 percent.

•  This month, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources awarded Joplin’s school district and parks department $635,000 to refurbish 11 parks, including $518,000 for playgrounds.

•  Retail business is booming. Residents, flush with insurance or FEMA checks, are buying everything from replacement cars and clothes to appliances and plasma screen TVs.

•  Hotels and motels have been booked at 90 to 100 percent capacity since the storm, first catering to emergency workers and displaced families and now to contractors and volunteer builders.

•  Restaurants, to serve the flow of workers, have taken on extra staff.

“It’s been outstanding,” Waffle House manager Thomas Martin said recently. “Business jumped up about 50 to 65 percent after the storm. Now, it’s (still up) 15 to 20 percent. It’s awesome.”

•  The Home Depot, which catastrophically collapsed, killing seven people, is scheduled to reopen Jan. 12 with an important new amenity: a storm shelter.

•  Carpenters, bricklayers and virtually everyone else in the building trades — suffering before the tornado from the housing bubble’s bursting and one of the worst economic downtowns since the Great Depression — can count on happier holidays, having more work than they can handle.

“Before (the tornado) they were actually begging for work,” said Chuck Phillips, assistant manager at Meek’s Lumber, which has added hours and nearly a dozen employees to keep up with the city’s lumber demands. “Right now, you couldn’t hire a contractor to build with any speed.”

•  Of 523 businesses damaged or destroyed, more than 400 have rebuilt, been repaired or have committed to do so.

At least one beloved business, Pizza by Stout, a favorite since 1978, is so far not returning. But many other mainstays are, including Dude’s Daylight Donuts and Jim Bob’s Steak Ribs.

Frank’s Lounge, a 42-year-old business at 2112 S. Main St., was rebuilt and back serving drinks in five months. Owner Judy Petty, 71, had initially decided not to rebuild. But four days after the storm, she changed her mind.

“As soon as I told the first person I wasn’t coming back,” she said, “I had people coming to my house, calling me on the phone, saying, ‘Please come back.’”

Each week, Joplinites are greeted by a spate of “grand reopenings” of big box stores and fast-food restaurants along Range Line Road and other thoroughfares.

“Walmart is reopened, and Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s have rebuilt,” City Manager Rohr says. “I see two Walgreens stores reconstructed. When I look around, I see potential is what I see. I see opportunities. Good things can come out of bad things if you have the right attitude.”

• • • 

Attitude aside, the tornado also heaved up a wave of problems that many acknowledge will take more than bricks, mortar and a can-do spirit to stem.

Exactly what the rebuilt city — population some 50,000 before the tornado — will or should look like continues to be debated.

In November, the city’s Citizens Advisory Recovery Team, a panel of some 100 residents, community and city leaders — offered the City Council a menu of recommendations.

The thinking is that the black cloud that tossed homes, schools, businesses and some 15,000 cars into twisted heaps might also offer a silver-lining opportunity — urban planning by tornado, just as tiny Greensburg, Kan., was reborn as an environmentally friendly town after being wiped from the map.

The recommendations from the team, known as CART, ranged from bike lanes in all areas of new construction to storm shelters in new schools. It included a mixed-use pilot neighborhood that might serve as a model for future urban core construction: energy-efficient homes with underground utilities on a block where retail mixes with residential.

“I don’t think we do justice to the lives that were lost, the people who were injured in the storm, if we don’t do our part to build back better than what we had before,” said Joplin School Superintendent C.J. Huff, a CART member. “If you don’t take this opportunity to build back better and stronger, then we weren’t the community I thought we were when I decided to come here.”

But there lies a tension:

While planning for the future, city leaders also know they must deal with the here and now, striving to rebuild the city as quickly as possible and return to normal knowing “normal” will have to be redefined.

If displaced residents don’t return – and no one knows how many will — city and school coffers are certain to suffer.

“I have no doubt we’re going to lose families,” said Huff, who is nonetheless hopeful. “I know we’re going to gain some families in the years to come.”

Sixty percent of the district’s budget comes from property taxes.

Rohr concedes that he sometimes stays up at night thinking about the figure 1,700. That’s the number of single family homes one housing study said need to be rebuilt for the city to regain its footing.

“We can make people clean up their lots, the debris,” Rohr said. “We can’t make people rebuild.”

• • • 

Psychologically, some hold, Joplin remains in crisis — perhaps more so now than in the first weeks of the aftermath.

“After Christmas, we expect an increase in depression and mental health issues,” said Alison Malinowski, executive director of Lafayette House, a Joplin domestic violence shelter. “It’s a bad time for depression, anyway, but now there is this added stress: All these people have had to replace basic belongings.

“Add the holidays, the reality of the bills setting in while still driving down a street that looks like Hiroshima, looking at a high school that has its guts still hanging out.”

Since the tornado, social workers say they’ve seen more child sexual abuse, domestic abuse, prostitution and drug abuse (particularly alcohol, prescription drugs and methamphetamine).

In one week, the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department pulled three meth houses out of Joplin’s “FEMAville,” the array of government-supplied modular homes where displaced people are living.

“People who were off of meth before are going back to it,” said Rebekah Oehring, clinical director of Lafayette House, a domestic abuse shelter whose census has spiked since the storm.

Women who might have escaped abusive relationships have found themselves, homes and apartments destroyed, returning to the homes of abusers. “Not having any place to go, I went back to a boyfriend,” Alisha Courtney, 41, said in tears at Lafayette House. “I went back to him and he ended up beating me terribly.”

Still, Joplin’s crime statistics overall don’t show any significant increase since the storm. In fact, in most every major category — including rape, robbery, arson, burglary and larceny — numbers are down.

Car thefts doubled to about 40 a month. And looting, for a time, was rampant. The theft of construction material got so bad — with people ripping new and old copper pipes from homes and copper wires from air-conditioning units — that cops just stationed themselves outside scrap yards and arrested thieves as they drove up.

“It got to the point where we were getting hundreds of calls a day about looters,” Officer Wayne Buck says.

• • • 

Now winter.

Construction will slow, and moods sometimes slump. For seven months, Joplin’s residents have carried on bravely. If there is a challenge now, said the town’s mayor, Mike Woolston, it will more than likely come from the limits of human nature rather than Mother Nature.

“I guess it would be that the public gets tired of fighting the battle,” Woolston said.

Whatever the progress, whatever the pain, Joplinites are confident of one outcome: They will come back.

“The intent is to have the city of Joplin bigger and better than it was before the storm,” Rohr said. “It’s a massive undertaking. This is not something that is going to be overcome in one year’s time. But we’re off to a great start.”

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