JOPLIN — When executives with "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" contacted builder Sam Clifton about a project in Joplin, he told them it was a great idea but that building a single home wouldn't send much of a message to a community that lost more than 7,000 homes in a devastating spring tornado.
So on Wednesday, work began on a project to build seven homes in seven days. The project — another effort by volunteers to reshape the southwest Missouri community still in the early stages of recovering from the May 22 twister that killed 162 people — will be featured on the popular ABC show.
The homes will be far from opulent. Clifton, who is overseeing the project, said the new units will by functional 1,300- to 1,800-square-foot homes, similar in size and style to many of the dwellings destroyed in the tornado.
"We want to help get the community going," Clifton said. "Get some excitement going in the town. That's my goal."
The TV show typically rebuilds a single home for a family that has been struck with some tragic circumstances. In Joplin's case, the seven homes are being built along the same street, just a few blocks from the hospital that was destroyed in the tornado — one of the worst in U.S. history.
Clifton said 10,000 volunteers have signed up to help with the project. Twenty-one general contractors from around the region have signed on, along with hundreds of skilled tradesmen.
The families will be sequestered away from Joplin until Oct. 26, when host Ty Pennington will deliver the famous "move that bus" proclamation and they'll see the homes for the first time. As of Wednesday afternoon, the names of the families had not been revealed.
The TV show has generated a lot of buzz in Joplin, where new homes are springing up and construction crews work late into the night. Millions of tons of debris have been cleared, and for-sale signs dot now-vacant land — in some cases, land that stretches for several blocks.
Banks and pharmacies are operating out of makeshift buildings or mobile homes. The Home Depot, where several people died in the tornado, has reopened in a huge tent.
Signs of rebirth are everywhere, but there's still a lot of work ahead. Huge tarps still cover holes and blown-out walls on many homes. There are still piles of debris awaiting disposal and homes damaged beyond repair awaiting demolition.
Clifton, who lives in Springfield, characterizes Joplin's process of rebuilding as slow.
"I think people are waiting to see what the community will do, if their neighbors will rebuild."
The "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" project involves a massive undertaking in a short amount of time. But Clifton said planning began in June and he has no worries that the homes won't be finished on time. All seven were progressing nicely on Wednesday, with newly poured foundations and the beginnings of new floors. Each of the homes has a different design, with exteriors a mix of siding and stone.
"It was a leap of faith," Clifton said, but volunteer turnout was so strong that a website seeking helpers had to be shut down. Volunteers are working 12-hour shifts, and work is going around the clock.
"We've got people that lost their houses who wanted to come help us," he said.
All of the materials for the project were donated, and churches in Joplin are working together to prepare about 30,000 meals for those involved in the building process.
It's not the first time Clifton was involved in an "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" project. In 2009, his Millstone Custom Homes led the effort to provide a new home for the Hampton family in Ash Grove.
In a Wednesday editorial, The Joplin Globe said the arrival of the ABC program will let the world see that Joplin is on the mend.
"The nation has seen the devastation of Joplin, but through this 'big build,' the spotlight will be on what we like best about our town — the ability to rise above our own losses in order to help someone else," the editorial read.