Special Reports

Life still in limbo for many people in Joplin

One of the many streets in the FEMA mobile housing complex just south of the Joplin, Mo. airport has been addressed "E. Z Street." The FEMA mobile homes were assembled in one large site including three trailer areas following the May 22nd EF-5 tornado that left thousands of Joplinites homeless. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star
One of the many streets in the FEMA mobile housing complex just south of the Joplin, Mo. airport has been addressed "E. Z Street." The FEMA mobile homes were assembled in one large site including three trailer areas following the May 22nd EF-5 tornado that left thousands of Joplinites homeless. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star The Kansas City Star

JOPLIN, Mo. | In official parlance, Vanessa and Lucas Owens and sons Alex, 2, and Darrell, 8 months, live in a three-bedroom, one-bath “mobile home unit” supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and located inside the Officer Jeffrey Taylor Community Mobile Home Site.

The way they put it: They live in a trailer in FEMAville.

The irony of their address, No.1604 E Z Street, is hardly lost on them. They have no jobs, no savings and no insurance.

Vanessa, 20, has her homeless, pregnant sister and child squeezed in with them, so now the trailer is packed. It sits alongside more than 500 white trailers exactly like their own, lined up in neat rows on acres of gravel across from the municipal airport. There are no parks or schools nearby. There is nothing for them or their children to do. Police repeatedly root out nests of meth dealers and quell domestic disturbances.

“The first thing I thought of when we got here was, really, is this our address? E Z Street?” said Lucas, 21. “ ‘Cause it’s still a pain.”

In contrast, nine miles away, the burst of nail guns punctuated the air like balloons being popped at a party.

Or like new opportunities knocking.

“This is the new front door,” said Sheri McAllister, 48. “We have a bedroom downstairs now. This is the master bath. The windows are going in today.”

She steps around the unfinished walls and winds her way through the frame of the 4,000-square-foot home that she and her dentist husband, Ed, are building to replace the old, slightly smaller home that used to stand here at 2701 S. Winfield Road.

“I loved it. I wouldn’t have changed it,” McAllister said of her former home, turned to a heap of wreckage along with nearly every other house on their block, while she and her family huddled in the basement. “Now I choose to see this as an opportunity.”

The May 22 tornado that split this city in half not only scattered debris, but also scattered to the wind people’s sense of constancy, the predictability and pace of their daily lives.

What once seemed stable — their homes and jobs, their neighbors, the way they assumed their own lives would play out in the future — became suddenly impermanent. Seven months after the tornado, many people in Joplin are still floating in limbo.

It is so for the residents of FEMAville, who worry about finding jobs and affordable apartments, as it is for the more affluent residents around Winfield Road who know the neighborhood they cared about will never be as it was.

Homes along Joplin’s western edge, on Winfield Avenue and Kingsdale Street and the like, were among the first obliterated when the tornado descended at 5:41 p.m.

Half or more of the neighbors are not returning.

Some who are rebuilding, such as the McAllisters, have bought all or part of a neighbor’s adjoining lot, allowing them to return to bigger homes in bigger, if treeless, yards.

“I think some people think we’re crazy for coming back,” said Jewell Bettasso, 55, whose home at 2721 S. Winfield was destroyed. She and her husband are building slightly bigger, too. The Bettassos and the McAllisters bought and split the property of the neighbor whose property they bookend, who is not returning.

“Some people don’t want to come back because it’s just too depressing,” McAllister said.

“The guy across from us, he wanted to rebuild,” Bettasso said. “But his wife just wanted out. She said, ‘No way!’ ”

But for some, it’s not a matter of memory, but of money — specifically, insurance.

It is one of the biggest factors separating the uncertainty felt by the people in FEMAville from that felt by the residents of places like Winfield Avenue and Kingsdale Street.

Having insurance has offered possibilities over the past seven months: fresh starts.

Having none has offered nothing.

• • • 

Billy Martin, 36, speaks bluntly:

“It’s hard starting over when you have so little to begin with,” he said.

Martin, his wife, Terri, 40, and their 8-year-old daughter, Savannah, got their FEMA trailer — and are grateful for it — not long after their Section 8 federally subsidized apartment on West 22nd Street was ripped away.

They have no money and no car. Martin’s job as a cook at a Mexican restaurant blew away with the building.

Martin said the manager told him he’ll get his job back once the restaurant is rebuilt, whenever that is. Likewise, the family said they were told they could count on receiving another government apartment when construction is finished many months from now.

Until then, the family lives on food stamps and $91 a week.

“You try raising a family on $91 a week,” Martin said. “It ain’t easy.”

Life in FEMAville, the Martins and others said, shifts from mind-numbing monotony — nothing going on, people holed up in their trailers, “a little like sitting in a jail cell,” Billy Martin said — to the kind of occasional excitement linked to having a high-poverty population living in close quarters:

Domestic disputes heard trailers away. Robberies. At least one stabbing. Methamphetamine and other drug dealers being regularly busted by police.

“I’ve seen a couple of doors kicked in,” Terri Martin said.

But church groups have also come by to throw the occasional block party. The government put in plastic jungle gyms for the kids.

“I’ve met a lot of good people,” Terri Martin said.

Chief among them is a neighbor also named Terri — Terri Woodworth — age 40, with sons ages 9 and 7.

Woodworth was at the rented home of a friend, Lindsey Gaw, on 19th Street when the house blew away. Gaw, 28, has two children, ages 9 and 3.

With no money and no place to go, Woodworth and Gaw and their children spent the first nine days living in a tent in a park and cooking over an open fire.

Uninsured, many residents in the trailers received checks from FEMA to replace their belongings. The maximum compensation was $30,200, but few if any of the people in the trailers seemed to get that. Residents here spoke of receiving between $1,000 and $11,000. Some bought newer-model cars that sit outside their mobile homes. Flat-panel TVs are common, as are new clothes. Casino cards litter the floor of some homes.

Woodworth got about $1,000. Gaw got $4,800. Both spent nearly all of it living in a motel, at $59 a night, with their kids for weeks after they left the tent. They had nowhere else to go.

The FEMA money disappeared.

Gaw has a $3.73-an-hour waitress job in town. But she has no car. Taxis, she said, charge more than she makes in a day. The trolley that runs into town isn’t always available when she needs it. Friends want gas money that she also can’t afford. If she goes to work, there is no one she feels she can routinely trust, or at least impose upon, to watch her children. Eighteen of the city’s day care centers were blown away, further stressing already stressed and homeless parents.

And just because their homes disappeared doesn’t mean their past bills did.

“I don’t even know what my plan is now,” Woodworth said.

Some, to be sure, paint a more placid picture of life in the trailers.

Lucas Owens — who counts five foster homes, seven group homes, several hospitals and residential facilities in his upbringing, and who says he hasn’t held a job for more than a couple of months in a row since he was 18 — said that, in some ways, FEMAville is the most stable place he has lived in a long time.

“We’re going to try to stay as long as we can,” Owens said.

Eleven months from now — when the 18-month limit on living in the FEMA trailers is up and Joplin’s tornado-displaced families are expected to be out and on their own — they have no idea where they will go.

Retta Grogg, 78, who received about $11,000 in FEMA aid, spends most of her time alone in her trailer, quietly watching television, venturing outside to walk her dog, Misty.

“It’s been real quiet,” said K.C. Culpepper, 51, a carpenter who helped manage and care for apartments and who has found himself working busily since the storm.

“Everyone has this bad idea of what it’s like to live here,” he said, standing outside his trailer. “That’s just not the way it is. It’s just people who were in the path of the tornado who have no place to live. I’m one of those people.”

Meantime, four Jasper County sheriff’s cruisers sat outside his neighbor’s trailer, where three men were being arrested for alleged possession of meth.

• • 

Sheri McAllister looks west through the opening in her home, where her new living room picture windows will go.

Two dozen or so houses used to sit out there. Now, but for a row of damaged houses to the north, the landscape is bare.

“I’m trying to look at it like a new subdivision,” she said.

Only one other new house in being built, two blocks away.

The day after the storm, McAllister and Bettasso stood on McAllister’s lawn with a handful of other dear Winfield Avenue friends and neighbors and decided, in that moment, that they would come back.

“We never really debated,” she said. “We never second-guessed it.”

Shortly thereafter, an insurance agent handed the McAllisters a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Bettassos got money, too, allowing her and her surgeon husband not only to rebuild, but also to stay these last several months in a 5,000-square-foot house outside town.

The McAllisters are squeezed into a smaller rental home. In Joplin’s midtown area, the building housing Ed McAllister’s dental practice also was blown away. Insurance not only paid for the building to be replaced, but also paid his salary and that of his staff in the meantime.

The Riggen family lived in a home at 2531 N. Kingsdale St. The Riggens had been contemplating moving from the two-story house into a one-story home for several years. When the tornado struck, they initially thought about repairing the damage until they discovered the house was uninhabitable.

“I go back down there and cry,” said Judie Riggen, 65. “That is where my home is. To be out of it and know I’m not going back, it is still difficult.”

They’re building elsewhere in Joplin.

So are Tim Kent, 53, and his family.

Kent, his wife and one of his two daughters were just arriving home when the tornado formed. A neighbor, Jim Easton, bolted into his yard and yelled to the Kents, “There is rotation above your house!”

Seconds later, the Kents fled to their basement and the house exploded into debris.

“You know, my youngest daughter, she’s 13,” Kent said. “She sort of probably took it the worst. She didn’t want to go back there. In fact, when we went back to rummage through the debris, she wouldn’t even get out of the vehicle.”

The Eastons are moving on. The Kents are building a bigger home on six wooded acres outside town.

“I’m going to get to build a much nicer house than the one I had,” Kent said. “I also got replacement value for all my contents. I got a lot more for my contents than if I had had a huge garage sale and sold everything I owned. I probably would have gotten a third of what I got in the insurance settlement.”

Gordon Elsten, 59, a pharmacist who lives at 2535 N. Kingsdale St., would like to leave if he could. But because his home, to the north, was only damaged, he first needs to rebuild much of it before he puts it on the market and moves, he hopes, to Las Vegas.

“You want to know what it’s like living here?” Elsten said, staring at a barren landscape of no homes, no streetlights. “It’s like living on the dark side of the moon.”

Back up at the top of the block, the McAllisters and Bettassos are looking forward to when their homes are finished. The Bettassos were soon to break ground. The McAllisters are scheduled to be done in July.

“The first home that’s built is holding the biggest party,” Bettasso said.

“Guess that’s me,” McAllister said.

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