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In Joplin, Art Helps Healing Amid ‘Amazing Sense of Loss’ From Tornado

September 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After a tornado destroyed a third of the city in May, some residents of Joplin, Mo., are finding that earlier pledges to rebuild aren't going as planned. Jeffrey Brown reports from Joplin on how art is helping some heal and how some people looking to rebuild homes, businesses and playgrounds are running into stumbling blocks.

GWEN IFILL: Now, a Missouri city struggles to come back after being wiped out by a deadly tornado just four months ago.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

MAN: We just want to overlap it just a little bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story Joplin, Mo., told in a mural in progress, from its founding in the 1870s as a small mining community to a city 50,000 strong of families and faith.

And there’s this, a moment in history that changed everything here, when the trees fell and the winds from a gigantic tornado blew down about a third of the town, leaving residents, old and young, reeling and hoping for a brighter future.

BRIANNA STURDEVANT, Joplin, Mo.: I just hope that all the damaged areas will be rebuilt and everyone will be able to have a good home again.

JEFFREY BROWN: The tornado struck at 5:40 p.m. on May 22. It killed 162 people and destroyed or damaged some 7,500 buildings. Four months later, residents are still literally picking up the pieces.

JANE CAGE, Citizens Advisory Recovery Team: It is certainly clean compared to what it used to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jane Cage, a business owner and chairwoman of a citizens commission to rebuild Joplin, took us on a tour.

Are people going to rebuild?

JANE CAGE: You know, it’s an excellent question. In the beginning, I think everyone said, I want to rebuild my house. And now I think people are faced with the reality that what they wanted, you know, their neighborhood and their friends, may not be in that same spot.

JEFFREY BROWN: If there’s a symbol of what happened here and what could come from it, it’s this, the mangled wreckage of Joplin High School. The once proud home of the Eagles is a daily reminder of the incredibly destructive force of the storm. But the school has also come to stand for hope and what hard work and goodwill could bring this city in the future.

That hope begins here. Just two days after the storm, with more than half of Joplin’s classrooms wiped out, superintendent C.J. Huff made a promise that the school would start on time in the fall. And it did, with the new Joplin High in an abandoned department store.

C.J. HUFF, Joplin School District: It became a rallying point for the community. And we had a lot of conversations about how that would — how we could make that happen. We got everybody intensely focused on a goal.

JEFFREY BROWN: You set a high bar, right, and the whole community is watching.

C.J. HUFF: The whole community and actually the entire nation I guess was watching.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a temporary space, but one designed as a blueprint for what a high-tech educational experience could be here. It didn’t hurt that each student was given a new laptop computer, a gift from the government of the United Arab Emirates.

C.J. HUFF: We have been talking about 21st century learning, 21st century skills and what a 21st century high school might look like, and saw this as a great opportunity to test drive a new school prior to actually building a permanent school.

JEFFREY BROWN: Emma Cox, who lost her house, as well as her school, says getting back to class was a return to normalcy, but one with a twist.

EMMA COX, Joplin, Mo.: We’re going to be the first class that graduates from a mall. I mean, I have never heard of anything like that. But, I mean, I guess we’re — there’s a first time for everything, so we’re just — we’re excited to set the standards high.

DAVID STARRETT, business owner: Now, $2 is your change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many in the business community were also determined to return to some sort of normalcy. David Starrett’s pharmacy was completely destroyed on that Sunday in May. But just six days later, he had leased a new space, installed shelves, ordered inventory, and opened his doors for business.

DAVID STARRETT: I had customers that were dependent on me to get up and going as quickly as possible. I just couldn’t see sitting around. It was, I think, vital for our business, not only for my personal business interests, but for the community and my customers as well, that, you know, we get up and going.

JEFFREY BROWN: But not everyone has been so fortunate. We met Ray and Terri Malcolm at the empty concrete slab where their day care center had stood for 20 years. They say a tangle of regulations has made it hard to rebuild.

RAY MALCOLM, Joplin, Mo.: Red tape.


RAY MALCOLM: Red tape is exactly what that — this is. We wanted to get started really quick, and it’s been a matter of dealing with the insurance companies, which has been a nightmare.

TERRI MALCOLM, Joplin, Mo.: Our first playground was massive. And we built it by hand. And now you can’t do that. They don’t want wooden items because they can’t be sanitized. And now, just for a slide alone, it’s $36,000. And that’s — we don’t got that.


JEFFREY BROWN: Money, of course, and more than most insurance settlements will provide, is one of the huge challenges going forward. The city has already received $175 million from FEMA for emergency rebuilding.

But it will need much more for the long term. At one of the city’s leading and now destroyed institutions, St. John’s Mercy Hospital, Jane Cage told us that future aid is critical.

JANE CAGE: This is a hospital that was built in the ’50s and ’60s. Well, it’s not the way health care works in the 21st century. So we have a chance to build a hospital that meets needs today.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s going to take money. That’s going to take a lot of resources, isn’t it?

JANE CAGE: It is going to take a lot of money. And I will tell you that I believe everyone in Joplin is working as hard as they can work. And we’re not waiting for help. But we know that it’s a task that’s beyond us. We can’t do this all ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, the emotional healing continues.

JO MUELLER, Spiva Center for the Arts: And this was…


JO MUELLER: This was his office.

JEFFREY BROWN: Walking through her severely damaged home, Jo Mueller says the storm left so many here confused and unsettled.

JO MUELLER: It’s just an amazing sense of loss, even for people who didn’t live right there in that zone. You come across scenes that don’t make any sense. You know, the landmarks are gone. And it gets you. It gets you right here.

JEFFREY BROWN: One way people learn to cope, Mueller says, is by sharing their stories. And as the director of Joplin’s 60-year-old Spiva Center for the Arts, Mueller is giving them that chance.

Look at this.

JO MUELLER: And this pretty amazing fork.

JEFFREY BROWN: She’s asked people to send objects and mementos for a planned exhibition that will tell the story of the storm.

JO MUELLER: The first thing that came in was this Bible. It’s this leather-bound Bible. It was a gift from the husband to the wife on their wedding anniversary. Their home was completely obliterated. And they went back and found this.

So, we expect to have poignant things, humorous things. It all will lie in the stories that we are told about these items.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Spiva Center has also mounted an exhibit called “On the Other Side,” featuring both professional and amateur artists who have created new work in response to the tornado.

Mueller’s own piece reflects on the loss of her cherished family photos. Many works here depict the stripped and deformed trees left in the twister’s wake. And there’s this, a sculpture of items collected in and around the destroyed childhood home of Evelyn Duvall.

Do you remember the first thing that you picked up here?

EVELYN DUVALL, Joplin, Mo.: The first thing I picked up was this pendulum over at my parents’ house from their clock.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Monopoly” houses, an old 45 record, pieces of neighborhood life. Evelyn Duvall hardly considers herself an artist. She works at a mental health center. This work, she says, came from a need to pick up those pieces and pay tribute.

EVELYN DUVALL: And I had bags full of stuff. And it was like, you know — and then the idea came of what to do with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then it became a work of art, in a sense, right?

EVELYN DUVALL: And then it became a work of art. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did that surprise you?

EVELYN DUVALL: It surprises me a lot.



JEFFREY BROWN: Because that’s not who you are, really, or who you think of yourself, right?

EVELYN DUVALL: …that’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, she says, the act of creating became her own path to healing.

EVELYN DUVALL: But it helped me cope with what had happened. And I think that that’s important. And we all have to find our own way to deal with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Emotional and physical scars everywhere, but planning for the future is now in high gear. Both St. John’s Hospital and Joplin High hope to have new buildings by 2014.