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.