Scars and stories on Joplin’s landscape
By Eric Thayer
More than three months ago, a massive tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri, killing almost 160 people and destroying nearly 8,000 homes and businesses. For a week the story garnered national and international attention. A community of 50,000 people was thrust into the spotlight.
Images of destruction dominated newspapers and newscasts. Stories were told, lives shown fragmented, a bruised and battered community rallied, despite being in a collective state of shock. Then, slowly, as the pools of rainwater dried up, the residents dug through the deep wound cut a mile wide into the landscape, picking out pieces of their shattered lives. Slowly the attention faded, though work quietly continued.
Almost three months later, I returned to Joplin to get a sense of where the community had come since the tornado. The wounds are healing. But they are healing slowly. Most of the residents have left the damaged areas, much of the debris has been removed, and although there is still much to be taken away, whole blocks have been cleared, leaving only the occasional foundation. Most of the work crews are gone; there is an occasional home under construction, but there aren’t many.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has built trailer parks on land next to an airport, about 20 minutes from the bulk of the destruction in a small piece of Joplin that juts into Webb City to the north. Stark white trailers on gravel streets, with beige interiors and blasting air conditioners are now home for many residents. They are allowed to live there rent-free for 18 months.
I spent some time with a couple and their son. The woman said she had returned two days earlier from California after battling cancer and winning; at 26. They had lost their apartment, and a representative of FEMA was there with papers to sign. He handed over the keys to their new home, and some semblance of normalcy began to return to their lives.
And it wasn’t just there.
The school district made a bold promise to open on time, and were able to back up their statement. The district was able to secure space in a mall, and built a technologically advanced school, that relies less on books – as the district decided to abandon lockers in favor of laptops issued to every student.
For students it was met with mixed emotions. There was the excitement of a new school, at a mall no less. But it was bittersweet, having lost friends, having endured their own injuries and loss, and collectively losing their school.
My last night in town was a Friday. I drove through the neighborhoods, nearly pitch black in the moonless night. Joplin will survive, and will come back. There is a collective will that can’t be denied.
But there will always be reminders. The ever-present tornado shelters will now be part of the future landscape; trees just beginning to grow leaves that will hide their broken and battered frames, that will once again be laid bare in the winter; the numerous U.S. flags. There will always be reminders for generations to come. There will be scars, on both the landscape and within the collective psyche of the community. And the stories will live on, long after the neighborhoods are put back together.