JOPLIN, MO. | A year after a massive tornado tore through Joplin, thousands of survivors and others touched by the storm’s fury made a somber march through some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in a town dedicated to remembering its losses but also committed to what is certain to be a long, slow recovery.
Carrying small American flags and wearing T-shirts bearing the names of friends and loved ones among the 161 tornado victims, they walked through the town where a tornado packing 200 mph winds killed 161 people. The tornado wiped away entire neighborhoods in the city of 50,000, destroyed Joplin’s only public high school and left behind a ghastly moonscape of block after city block of foundations wiped clean of their structures.
“There is not a handbook out there that says, ‘Here’s how you develop a community that has an 8-mile-long, 25-to-30-city-block-wide swath of area that has basically lost everything,’ ” said David Wallace, a Texas developer whose firm was hired by the city to oversee Joplin’s rebuilding plan. He estimated the recovery will cost nearly $2 billion, about half of which has already been pledged by private sources.
Signs of the challenges ahead were plentiful on the four-mile “Walk of Unity,” from the glaring absence of century-old trees in the city’s central neighborhoods to the ghostly shell of St. John’s Regional Medical Center. It formed a stark backdrop for a late afternoon memorial service marked by a moment of silence at 5:41 pm. - the exact time the tornado hit.
Throughout the day, residents, hospital workers, volunteers and politicians had gathered across the disaster zone to mark the May 22, 2011, tornado, mixing somber remembrances with steely resolutions to rebuild.
“It is so fitting to begin this day, this anniversary, by reflecting on our faith as dawn breaks over a renewed Joplin,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said at a sunrise service at Freeman Hospital, which was undamaged by the storm. “Scripture tells us that the path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”
The afternoon procession started in neighboring Duquesne, where more than one-fourth of the community’s 750 homes were destroyed and nine people died. The Joplin portion of the walk began past a Wal-Mart where three people were killed and 200 survived by huddling together in employee break rooms, bathrooms and other designated safe zones.
Among the planned stops was a groundbreaking ceremony for the rebuilt Joplin High. Juniors and seniors will spend the next two years attending school in a converted department store in the city’s sole shopping mall.
The city held the first of three groundbreaking ceremonies Tuesday morning for its new schools on land donated by the Sisters of Mercy Health System. An elementary school will be built at the site to replace two that were destroyed.
“The sound of hammers has replaced the sound of sirens,” said C.J. Huff, Joplin’s school superintendent.
A community theater where three people died after a Sunday matinee performance will be rebuilt nearby. Those on the walk included former co-workers of Randy Mell, a 49-year-old Jasper County custodian who died while trying to save some of the more than 50 audience and cast members trapped inside the Stained Glass Theater.
“It’s been a roller-coaster-type year. Extremely high highs and lots of low lows,” said Debbie Fort, the principal of Erving Elementary School, which has been operating out of temporary facilities and which will be the name of the new school.
“It’s important that we take a moment to reflect and remember,” she said. “But it’s a new chapter in our lives. This really signifies our future, the future of Joplin.”
Insurance policies are expected to cover most of the $2.8 billion in damage from the storm. But taxpayers could supply about $500 million in federal and state disaster aid, low-interest loans and local bonds backed by higher taxes. Almost one-fifth of that money was paid to contractors who hauled off an estimated 3 million cubic yards of debris.
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