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A Year After Joplin’s Tornado, Disaster’s ‘Immensity’ Still a Challenge

May 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
One year ago, a tornado packing 200 mph winds tore through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 161 people and destroying 8,000 buildings -- including many homes. Gwen Ifill and businesswoman Jane Cage, who leads the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team, discuss life in Joplin now and down the road.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the city of Joplin, Mo., rebuilds and remembers one year after it was leveled by a deadly twister.

This was Joplin one year ago, after a tornado packing 200-an-hour winds tore through town. It killed 161 people, injured hundreds more, and destroyed 8,000 buildings, many of them homes. This is how the city of 50,000 looks today. Three million cubic yards of debris have been hauled away. Damaged homes have been torn down, leaving empty foundations.

Others have been rebuilt, but at a cost. The storm caused $2.8 billion in damage, the costliest tornado since 1950. And emotional, physical and psychological scars remain.

RANDY STEELE, Joplin School Board president: Normal is not normal for Joplin, Missouri, but one day, it will be.

GWEN IFILL: Joplin High School was severely damaged in the storm, as were 10 other public schools in the area. Classes moved to a nearby mall. With donations from the United Arab Emirates, students received new laptops and state-of-the-art equipment. But life after the storm continues to be an adjustment.

DANIELLE CAMPBELL, student: We don’t have books anymore, laptops now. Everything’s been different. Nothing’s been the same, except that it’s school. We call it school.

GWEN IFILL: Last night, President Obama told graduating seniors they would always carry the experience of the past year with them.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of life’s strongest bonds are the ones we forge when everything around us seems broken. And even though I expect that some of you will ultimately end up leaving Joplin, I’m pretty confident that Joplin will never leave you.

GWEN IFILL: Today, city leaders broke ground on Joplin High’s new building, as well as for two other new schools. Joplin High principal Kerry Sachetta spoke recently of the importance of providing students with some sense of normalcy.

He was interviewed by Ozarks Public Broadcasting as part of a documentary about life in Joplin now.

KERRY SACHETTA, principal, Joplin High School: We wanted them to be able to say, you know what? I was in this club, I was in this organization, I was on this team, I was in this concert or whatever activity, and not to have — not to be able to look back and say, this tornado not only destroyed our town, but it also wiped out everything I can remember about what was important to me growing up.

GWEN IFILL: The city has had to make other big adjustments, as well. The tornado reduced Saint John’s Regional Medical Center to a shell. Since then, a smaller interim facility, Mercy Hospital, has been built down the road, while work on a permanent replacement continues. But demand often outpaces resources.

GARY PULSIPHER, president and CEO, Mercy Hospital Joplin: The availability of beds is just difficult, so if somebody needs to be hospitalized — let’s say that an elderly patient comes in and has pneumonia,and we always keep these for a couple of days to make sure we can get them well — many times, we have to go to as far as Kansas City to find a bed to be able to put them in.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Brown is lead pastor of Saint Paul’s United Church, which lost its sanctuary in the storm. He says, for many, the trials brought on by the storm made them stronger.

AARON BROWN, lead pastor, Saint Paul’s United Church: Being a person of faith doesn’t ever insulate you from tragedy or harm. What God’s promise is clearly in Scripture and what Jesus conveys is that: “I will be with you through the storm. I will be with you when the tragedy hits. I will be with you as you pick through rubble. I will be with you as you stand at the grave site of the person that you love. I will be with you.”

GWEN IFILL: Commemorations continued this afternoon with a walk of unity, including Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and many of the city’s residents.

Now we get a firsthand account about life in Joplin today from Jane Cage. She’s a longtime businesswoman and she leads the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team.


JANE CAGE, Joplin Citizens Advisory Recovery Team: Thank you. Thanks for being interested in Joplin today.

GWEN IFILL: I see you wearing that T-shirt with a one on it. Explain where you have been and what that T-shirt mean.


This T-shirt means one year, one community, one direction. And today is the one-year anniversary of the tornado. And I have just come from the Walk of Unity, where there are literally thousands of people walking across Joplin. The mile must have — the parade must have stretched half a mile or more. It’s incredible.

GWEN IFILL: In the year of Joplin’s recovery, what has been the most difficult part?

JANE CAGE: I think the immensity of it. When you look at how long the destruction was and how wide it was, there’s just so much to do. There are so many houses to rebuild. There’s so much to think our way through. There’s just a lot going on, but I think we’re making great progress.

GWEN IFILL: And as you look back over these past 12 months, what would you say is the greatest accomplishment so far?

JANE CAGE: I think the greatest accomplishment so far is, number one, the number of people that we have been able to bring back home and probably, number two, the fact that we opened school on time and have had great attendance all year long, even in very trying circumstances.

GWEN IFILL: Now, I should tell our viewers that the Chamber of Commerce named you citizen of the year in 2012.

JANE CAGE: Yes, ma’am.

GWEN IFILL: So, as citizens have been involved — as citizens have been involved in this recovery, how — there comes a point where people get a little tired of always giving or of always helping with recovery. Has that happened in Joplin as well?

JANE CAGE: I think everybody’s been tired at one point or another along the way, but everybody’s pushing through it because if you were here every day and could see what we see on the ground, the amount of progress that we make, it’s really very encouraging.

GWEN IFILL: But you didn’t lose your home and you didn’t lose your business. So why bother?

JANE CAGE: Oh, my gosh.

I always said that I live at the corner of fortunate and guilty. I’m really fortunate that I can go home at night. And when I think of all the people that I know that lost someone they loved or lost their house or lost their business or lost all three, I have the time to do this kind of work compared to people who are trying to put their lives back together.

I don’t have to decide where to buy a house, about furniture. I don’t have to replace a car. I don’t have to deal with insurance people. I have time.

GWEN IFILL: So, what exactly have you been doing in a hands-on way?

JANE CAGE: I go to a lot of meetings and I facilitate a lot of groups. So, that’s probably the number one answer.

But our job has been to listen to the public and so we have done that through a number of public input meetings. We had one just less than two months after the tornado and we had 350 people come and tell us what they believe the future should be like. And that’s pretty amazing considering people were still trying to get their life back together.

And now I see our job is to be an advocate for what we heard people wanted Joplin to be like.

GWEN IFILL: No community can survive without a functioning, working hospital, especially in times of disaster. The comeback of the hospital alone was quite something.

JANE CAGE: It is, isn’t it?

I used to be chairman of the board here at St. John’s, and you can see what’s left of it behind me. But in less than two weeks ago, we had a field MASH hospital up and running. Then we moved to modular units. And then just about a month ago, we moved into kind of pre-built unit with two floors that has about 120 beds. And we have broken ground out a little further south on $500 million worth of hospital, so their commitment to the community has just been beyond belief.

GWEN IFILL: Now, one of the iconic images we all remember from those awful first days was the flattened Home Depot. How has the business community recovered in this past year?

JANE CAGE: You know, the big box stores along Rangeline, our big commercial segment, Academy is back, Home Depot is back. Walgreens was back in a matter of maybe three months. Chick-fil-A is back. Academy Sports is back.

Those big box stores are doing really well. It’s taken a little longer for mom-and-pop shops to come to terms with everything and deal with their insurance, but we’re seeing those come back as well.

GWEN IFILL: So, we have been looking backward. Let’s look forward.


GWEN IFILL: What is it that you would like to see happen in the next 12 months or the next 12 years in your city?

JANE CAGE: It’s interesting.

I filled out a thing about what I wanted to be — how I wanted to see Joplin in 50 years. And in 50 years, I said I hoped that nobody can tell we ever had a tornado. In the next 12 months, I’m hoping that we will see more forward progress, that we will see the high school being built, the hospital being built, that we will be able to make some decisions about making the city greener and more attractive.

And then in the next 12 years, I hope we will see that happen. It’s a long process.

GWEN IFILL: Now, what does it take for that to happen? Do you still need help from outside? Do you still need help from the federal government? In your case, you got help from some foreign governments as well. What has to happen for all of your dreams to come true, as it were?

JANE CAGE: You know, I will tell you — and I have said this many times — we’re working as hard as we can work. And we’re doing our very best.

We’re not waiting on help to arrive, but it’s obvious because of the large nature of this task, we need help still. We have gotten some wonderful gifts. The United Arab Emirates gave $5 million to the hospital just this week for a new neonatal intensive care unit. And we have gotten money from all around.

I would say we’re probably the number one destination for mission trips for the summer, who are helping us rebuild low- to moderate-income housing for Habitat for Humanity and lots of other great faith-based organizations. But we have a lot to do, and we’re going to need people for a while and we are going to need — we’re going to continue to need resources for a while.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Jane Cage, the 2012 Joplin citizen of the year, thank you so much for all the work you have done.


JANE CAGE: Oh, yes, ma’am, everybody’s working hard, not just me.