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Joplin Mayor: ‘We Haven’t Quite Started Rebuilding Yet’

May 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Record snow melt and heavy rain bloated the Missouri River, jeopardizing parts of five states Sunday and residents of western Michigan reported tornado sightings. Meanwhile, residents of Joplin, Mo., are still digging out after a massive and deadly tornado. Gwen Ifill discusses the state of recovery efforts with Joplin Mayor.

GWEN IFILL: Severe weather has carved a path of destruction around the country this spring, and it’s apparently not over yet.

The year’s latest weather extreme was in full view this weekend along the bloated Missouri River. The river is filled with runoff from heavy rain and record snowmelt. And floods now jeopardize parts of five states. The threat has officials mobilizing everything they have got, including the National Guard.

In Bismarck, N.D., the Army Corps of Engineers has been building emergency levees.

PAUL JOHNSON, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: We fully expect that all this level of protection would be in place before the higher flows come mid-month.

GWEN IFILL: And, in South Dakota, flows from dams have been increased to relieve pressure.

GOV. DENNIS DAUGAARD, R-S.D.: Our governments are working hard to protect public infrastructure, highways, utilities, water, sewer. And then, as we are able, we will try to protect private property, to the extent we can do so.

GWEN IFILL: But new rain is making it even tougher for people trying to save already-soaked communities.

JOE GROSS, Minot Department of Public Works: Doing fine until it started raining, and now we’re just trying to stay one step ahead of the battle. And I don’t think we’re doing that well.

GWEN IFILL: Disaster of a different kind threatened western Michigan on Sunday, as people in Vicksburg reported tornado sightings.

WOMAN: We looked over towards the neighbor’s house, and you could actually see rotation. And it was down to the top of the tree level. And just as quick as we got everybody to the basement, it just broke apart.

GWEN IFILL: The storm blew down power lines and damaged houses there.

But the destruction was nothing like what befell Joplin, Mo., just one week earlier in one of the deadliest tornadoes on record.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: How you guys doing?

MAN: Hey.

BARACK OBAMA: How are you?

GWEN IFILL: President Obama spent much of Sunday in Joplin, seeing the devastation for himself and meeting with survivors.

BARACK OBAMA: The main thing I just want to communicate to the people of Joplin is this is just not your tragedy. This is a national tragedy, and that means there will be a national response.

GWEN IFILL: As search teams continued to work, officials confirmed more than 130 killed and at least 29 people still unaccounted for.

ANDREA SPILLARS, Missouri Department of Public Safety: Investigators from the Highway Patrol, staff from the State Emergency Management Agency, and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have continued to work 24 hours a day to account for individuals and to expeditiously and respectfully notify next of kin when their loved ones are confirmed dead. And we will not give up until every single person is accounted for.

GWEN IFILL: At a Sunday memorial service, Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon vowed, the community will persevere.

GOV. JAY NIXON, D-Mo.: That storm, the likes of which we have never seen, has brought forward a spirit of resilience, the likes of which we have also never seen.

GWEN IFILL: Today, American flags flew over the city’s ruins for Memorial Day. And thousands left homeless are still in search of permanent shelter.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, announced it’s searching for rental homes within a 55-mile radius of Joplin. And trailers like those used after Hurricane Katrina may be brought in if enough homes are not available.

For more about the situation in Joplin and its efforts to recover, I spoke earlier this afternoon with Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston.

Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

Tell me, how is the rebuilding going?

MIKE WOOLSTON, mayor of Joplin, Mo.: Well, we haven’t quite started rebuilding just yet.

You will see, behind me, Gwen, we do have one building going up. I think it’s probably the first in the community. But we’re still essentially trying to dig out from under the debris, a lot of folks out this weekend cleaning up their properties. Have a huge number of volunteers in town from various groups all over the country helping with that cleanup effort.

And so we will continue with that for a bit before we see a substantial amount of rebuilding. But we have had some announcements. Our hospital that was so critically damaged, they will rebuild here in town. One of the grocery stores that was flattened will rebuild here in town. So, we’re getting – beginning to get some of those kinds of positive announcements.

GWEN IFILL: We have also heard some reports this week about the number of people without homes.

What – what are – what steps are being taken to find places for them to live?

MIKE WOOLSTON: We’re working with FEMA to find housing for everyone.

Someone asked me earlier if FEMA is going to bring in some mobile units. And I’m not sure exactly what the eventual outcome will be, but we’re willing to visit with FEMA and consider just about any option. They’re looking primarily at a radius of about within 50 miles of town. So, given the number of folks that need housing, we may have to house a few of those folks in the outlying towns a few miles away from here. But we – we hope to keep those people here, because this is home.

GWEN IFILL: Are there any concerns about the idea of bring in mobile units, like they had after Katrina, these trailers, when you’re in a tornado – tornado zone?

MIKE WOOLSTON: Sure, some concerns.

I guess, on the surface, what would we do with all those when they left, or do they belong to FEMA? Do they belong to the occupants? Do they belong to the city? So, a lot of the details like that, I don’t have any information.

But, as I said, I think we’re trying to look at any option that would take care of our citizens, because that is our primary focus.

GWEN IFILL: You had a presidential visit yesterday. How do those kinds of visits – or do they – help with either the actual rebuilding itself in terms of resources coming from Washington, or just – is it the sense of the mood of the people of Joplin?

MIKE WOOLSTON: I think it was a bit of the sense of the mood of the people, though I think our folks are fairly resilient. And I think spirits were as high as could be expected in the days immediately after the storm.

The president’s visit draws attention to the area. We had had quite a lot of attention prior to that. And we have had promises from government at every level that we would have the cooperation we needed, that they were here for the long term, and that they wouldn’t be leaving us just as soon as the media lost – lost interest in us.

And the president reaffirmed that. And I was very pleased to hear that, that he publicly announced in his remarks that they would be here long term, that they would provide us with help we needed. And it was very reassuring for me and I think for our citizens.

GWEN IFILL: It is great to hear about the resiliency of the people in Joplin.

But what do you do, as a community leader, about rebuilding the local economy, which has been quite stricken by this, as well as the local infrastructure?

MIKE WOOLSTON: Well, we try to help our citizens and homes. And, of course, that’s probably the top priority. But we’re also concerned about our business owners.

We have a pretty substantial number of our businesses that were damaged or destroyed. And so we’re – we’re hoping to provide them some assistance as well. We’re encouraging everyone, whether you just be a homeowner or a tenant or a business owner, to register with FEMA. That’s critically important, and the sooner the better, so that you can basically get in line, and it will be probably a fairly lengthy line.

But we’re encouraging people to register with FEMA and take advantage of that kind of assistance. And my understanding is FEMA will direct people to whatever resource might best help them, given their particular concerns.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned at the top of this that the hospital announced it’s going to rebuild in Joplin. What about the schools, the school system? I know that the high school took a big hit.

MIKE WOOLSTON: The high school was – it’s my understanding – is a total loss.

They had a high school-age technical school where they learned heating and air conditioning, electricity, culinary arts. That was totally destroyed. And we had one elementary that was totally destroyed.

However, the public school district announced – I believe it was Thursday morning – that one of our newer middle schools about a year-old had some serious damage, and that they would use the same contractors that built that facility to rebuild it, same contractors, same blueprints, same everything. And so they – my understanding is they have already started on that.

The school district has announced that they will hold summer school and that classes will open on schedule in August.

GWEN IFILL: As you begin to think about what has happened in just this last week, the good news and the not-so-good news which the city has had to deal with, what would you say are the biggest challenges awaiting you now in the next several weeks and months, maybe years?

MIKE WOOLSTON: I would guess just getting through the process. We – we recognize this is going to be a long process. It’s difficult right now to project how long it will be before we get back to – quote, unquote – “normal,” if we ever do get back there.

But I guess what strikes me is the – the amount of effort and time that it will take working through the various government programs and the bureaucracy, the paperwork, to make sure that we do things right to take care of our citizens. Every decision that we make from the very beginning of this has been made that – with the perspective of what’s in the best interest of our citizens.

And so, that will always be our number-one focus when we’re making decisions is what’s best for our community?

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mayor, do you have a price tag on any of this yet?

MIKE WOOLSTON: Numbers we have are real rough, Gwen. And they vary widely. As we get through the process a little further, I expect that those will be narrowed down and refined to a more definitive number.

But, at this point, I would be hesitant to guess at something because, on my part, it would be just a guess. It’s just still in the process of trying to assess all the damage. Once we get dug out a little bit further and get a better idea of what remains of some buildings, if they’re salvageable or not, we probably will have a better number. But, at this point, I would be reluctant to put a tag on it.


Mayor Mike Woolston of Joplin, Mo., thank you so much for joining us.