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In Tornado Aftermath, What Residents of Moore Can Learn From Joplin

On May, 22, 2012, PBS NewsHour revisited Joplin, Mo., on the one-year anniversary of the tornado that killed 161 people.

As homeowners, business leaders and city officials in Moore, Okla., begin to grapple with the damage from the devastating tornado Monday, just 220 miles away, residents of Joplin, Mo., remember their own losses — two years ago to the day on Wednesday — and are responding to the Oklahoma tragedy by sending emergency personnel, donations and volunteers to offer help and hope.

It was at 5:41 p.m. on May 22, 2011, when an EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin, killing 161 people and injuring 1,000. More than 9,000 people lost their homes and 550 businesses were damaged or destroyed. Volunteers — nearly 200,000, according to city officials — poured into Joplin to help with the rebuilding effort. FEMA estimates it will spend $177 million to repair or replace public buildings and $40 million in grants for home repairs. The Small Business Administration has approved $43 million in low interest disaster loans. City manager Chris Rohr says 84 percent of homes and 90 percent of businesses have been rebuilt, repaired or permitted for construction.

While the rebuilding effort has taken longer than most people expected, Jane Cage, chairwoman of the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team, says ultimately Joplin will emerge bigger and stronger than it was before the storm. She said while it was difficult for residents of her city to watch events unfold in Oklahoma this week, everyone’s first response was “we must go help them since so much has been given to us.” Members of the Joplin police, fire and school departments have already been dispatched to Moore, and the local utility company will go within the next day or two to offer its services.

One year ago, correspondent Jeffrey Brown visited with Cage and others in Joplin to talk about the rebuilding efforts. Now, two years after the storm, here is an update on some of the people who spoke with the NewsHour.

Photo by Mike Gullet Jane Cage, Citizens Advisory Recovery Team Chairwoman: As she looks around Joplin, Jane Cage says she is amazed at the progress that has been made. At one point, nearly 600 FEMA trailers dotted the landscape. Today, only 20 trailers remain to shelter people who lost their homes in the storm. Most of the residential development is happening in the neighborhoods where Habitat for Humanity has built more than 61 houses. Cage says she understands that some people are frustrated that the city isn’t further along, but says ultimately the city is going to emerge stronger. Her advice to the people of Moore is to “be patient and be creative. The rebuilding process definitely takes longer than you believe it will.” This Saturday, a busload of volunteers from Joplin plan to go to begin sorting through the debris. “It feels good that we’re starting to be on the giving end instead of the receiving end,” says Cage. Reflecting on how she has changed over the last two years, she says “the tornado has made me bolder. Before, I might have been afraid to ask for something or approach a person in power. Now I never hesitate. I think doors have opened for Joplin that we never even considered before.”

Photo by Joplin Schools District C.J. Huff, School Superintendent: C.J. Huff says he is proud of the headway the Joplin School district has made over the past two years. Two elementary schools and one middle school will reopen in January 2014 and Joplin High School will reopen later that fall. In addition, the city is building 14 “safe rooms” at schools where students and residents can seek shelter in future storms. Huff says while much work remains to be done, the energy and morale in Joplin remains good. “We’ve always known this would be a marathon, not a sprint.” Although he has not been able to watch television coverage of the Oklahoma tornado because of the memories it would bring, Huff has this advice to the leaders in Moore: Concentrate on taking care of everyone’s mental health. “The buildings will get rebuilt, but you need to take care of the people.” He added that 1400 students in his district are still being treated for varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder. The Joplin School District has sent an assistant superintendent and a public affairs officer to help Moore’s school officials. “So much support came to us from around the world, so now we need to pay that forward.”

Photo by Jenni CarrEvelyn Duvall, Joplin resident: The NewsHour first met Evelyn Duvall at the Spiva Art Center, where she was exhibited a sculpture made from items she collected from her parents’ destroyed home. An employee at a mental health center, she said the art project helped her work through some of her guilt that she hadn’t been able to help the injured when the tornado hit. That guilt also prompted her to go back to school to become an Emergency Medical Technician. Her biggest frustration now? She still has one last exam to complete, so she couldn’t go to Moore to help with rescue efforts there. Still, she says she is heartened to see the spirit of hope and determination among the Moore residents. “They have that same hope that we had. It’s inspiring to watch them, neighbor helping neighbor.”

Photo by Spiva Center for the ArtsJo Mueller, Director of the Spiva Center for the Arts: For more than 12 months, Jo Mueller and her husband agonized over whether to rebuild their destroyed home in Joplin. What had been a wooded property, was suddenly barren. Ultimately, they chose to move to a new community just north of the city. But Mueller continues her work every day at the Spiva Center for the Arts and is excited by the energy that continues to move the city forward. Spiva has hosted numerous exhibits dealing with the aftermath of the storm — some with professional artists, many with the work of amateurs looking for a creative outlet. One of her favorite exhibits was by photographer Robert X. Fogarty called “Dear World, From Joplin With Love.” It featured portraits of storm survivors, first responders, volunteers and city officials, all displaying a message to the world written on their skin.

David Starrett, Business Owner: David Starrett’s pharmacy was reduced to rubble on that day in May two years ago. But just six days later, he had leased a new space and was up and running. Now, reflecting back, Starrett concedes it was a combination of hard work and luck that he was able to recover so quickly. He’s doing more business today than he did before the tornado hit and he’s optimistic that ultimately Joplin will be a better city than it was. “But you never forget. We’ll never be the same. So many lives were lost.” He says he knows he’s a different person too. “Anyone who goes through an experience like this, you realize what’s really important. Life is about more than business. It’s about family and community and neighbor helping neighbor.”

Photo by Robert X. Fogart

Pharmacists David and Sheree Starrett posed for photographer Robert X. Fogarty, as part of the “Dear World, From Joplin With Love” exhibit that was mounted at the Spiva Center for the Arts. Photo by Robert X. Fogarty.

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