From rubble to rebuilding: A year in Joplin

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

JOPLIN — The tornado that hit Joplin a year ago took 161 lives, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings. It also fractured the landscape of the city, and opened the door to a massive rebuilding and recovery operation.

A year later, much of the debris has been cleared and damaged homes have been wiped from their foundations. Some have been rebuilt. Some never will be. Groundbreakings are being planned to rebuild schools. Around the community, the devastation from a year ago has been replaced with plans to rebuild, renovate and recover.

Here are some snapshots of how life has changed around Joplin:

Debris removal/rebuilding

The ghostly moonscape left behind by the EF5 tornado was made more eerie by months of debris removal that took away piles of rubble, leaving rows of foundations and little else. More than 8,000 structures — the vast majority of them homes — were damaged or destroyed, directly affecting at least 17,000 people.

Eleven months after the storm, more than $310 million in building permits were issued as construction began and life slowly but steadily returned to the city's south side. Big-box retail chains have been rebuilt and are open for business, and smaller shops along Range Line Road, the city's main strip, have also returned.

The once-bustling St. John's Regional Medical Center — reduced by the storm to a dangerous shell that had to be demolished with the help of a wrecking ball — is being rebuilt as "Mercy Hospital Joplin." It recently received a $5 million donation from the United Arab Emirates to develop the hospital's first neonatal intensive care unit.

About a month before the first anniversary of the storm, more than 600 permits for new homes and nearly 3,000 permits for residential repairs and rebuilding projects have been issued.

Overall, American taxpayers are expected to supply about $500 million in recovery money in the form of federal and state disaster aid, low-interest loans and local bonds. Almost one-fifth of that money has been paid to contractors who hauled off an estimated 3 million cubic yards of debris.


The tornado damaged or destroyed 10 public schools, including Joplin High School. Tuesday's anniversary ceremonies were expected to include groundbreakings at three schools — an elementary school, a middle school and the high school, which is scheduled to reopen in 2014.

As their school was demolished and ground was prepped for rebuilding, high school students attended class in a converted big-box store at the city's only shopping mall.

Insurance toll

The storm caused about $2.8 billion in damage, making it the nation's costliest tornado since at least 1950. The insurance industry has paid about $1.5 billion in homeowners, auto and commercial property claims related to the tornado. The state insurance department expects insurance payouts of about $2 billion by the time all claims are settled.

Taxpayers could supply about $500 million in recovery money. While the outpouring of assistance pales in comparison to the assistance after Hurricane Katrina, the Joplin tornado and its financial fallout has raised fresh questions about the government's role in disasters.

Safe houses

When the storm hit, thousands of residents took shelter on the ground floor of their homes or businesses, shielding themselves in bathtubs or under mattresses.

The rocky soil underneath Joplin isn't ideal for building basements, so many are now turning to so-called "safe rooms" — fortified rooms built to withstand a tornado's worst winds. Safe rooms are surging in popularity. After the storm, one local firm that makes the rooms went from four employees to 20 and has sold at least four times as many of the rooms as they did the year before the twister.


An untold number of pets were lost in the storm, but eventually there were happy endings, with about 500 animals being reunited with their owners.

A month after the tornado, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Joplin Humane Society found permanent homes for 745 pets during an "adopt-a-thon" event — drawing more than 5,700 people from 24 states. Several owners named their new pets "Joplin," while others opted for "MoJo" and "JoMo," shorthand variations of the city and state names.

One adopted pet was even named "F-5" after the savage tornado's storm rating EF5, which is the strongest rating on forecasters' tornado strength scale.

Overall, the ASPCA cared for about 1,300 animals — mostly dogs and cats — that were homeless after the tornado.


The tornado was so wide and powerful that it erased many of the local landmarks that gave locals their sense of place and direction.

Whole neighborhoods were flattened. Broad-shouldered trees that had stood for decades had their limbs sheared off and were stripped of their bark. Churches were damaged or destroyed; one was reduced to only a cross that marked where the church used to be.

The most common tools used by residents — street signs and signal lights marking key intersections — were blown away. A year later, many have yet to be replaced. In late April, impatient city officials announced that the city was close to getting approval for federal funding that would help replace signal lights and more than 2,000 signs destroyed in the storm.

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George Bundas May 22, 2012 | 3:25 p.m.

" . . . more than 600 permits for new homes and nearly 3,000 permits for residential repairs and rebuilding projects have been issued." Will those 600 new homes be built having the same city building codes that Joplin had before May 22, 2011? If another tornado will hit this town, what kind of guarantee will those who rebuild their homes here have? Their homes will stand up or they will be destroyed again? If nothing changed in Joplin's city building codes, American people accept to do Sisyphean work? Have they given up on doing research in the home construction industry to fix the issues to build safe homes?

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