JOPLIN — People of all ages and from all parts of the country flooded 17th Street Tuesday afternoon, laughing, cheering and showing their support for Joplin on the one-year anniversary of the EF5 tornado.
Thousands gathered to follow the 3.7-mile path of the tornado in a Walk of Unity, which started at the corner of 17th Street and Range Line Road. There, a brand-new Walmart stands, rebuilt just six months after being destroyed in the deadly May 22, 2011, incident.
Along the route, Barbara Peacock, 69, and her mother Norma Short, 85, waved to friends from the front porch of Peacock’s new home.
After losing her house in the tornado last year, Peacock decided to remain on the same lot. She said she has lived on the property for 35 years, and though she lost many possessions a year ago, the place gives her a way to hang on to memories.
On Tuesday, the two couldn’t help but smile in appreciation of the grand gesture toward Joplin.
“You could not believe what it means to see this many people who care and love us,” Peacock said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. This is remarkable.”
At several stops along the way, walkers were able to write tributes to loved ones lost in the tornado.
A playground at Irving Elementary School, destroyed a year ago, was filled with chalk drawings in honor of friends and family.
Kiona Stone, 13, wrote the name of her father’s friend Dean Wells, who died trying to rescue two children after Home Depot collapsed.
“I can come back here and remember him,” she said. “And I can see what everyone else is writing down and see what it means in their lives, too.”
Walkers stopped to watch a crane lift a new steeple to the top of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, seen by many as a sign of fresh beginnings for the Mormon church and the entire Joplin community.
Chris Hoffman, 44, a bishop, said the year-long relief efforts were more about care and compassion than religious affiliation. That theme was repeated by many throughout the day.
“We are so blessed to have each other,” said Micci Coggeshell, 45, a real estate agent who volunteered by serving water during the walk. “We didn’t have to wait around for help. We were making progress within 24 hours.”
Home Depot, which has been rebuilt across town, provided a workshop at the Irving playground where children could build birdhouses and other projects out of wood. It was the store’s way to give back to the community that was so supportive after the store was hit, said manager Steve Cope.
Cope said a plaque has been placed on the front of the store that reads: “In remembrance of the lives lost and to the future of rebuilding in their memory.”
At Cunningham Park, the last stop on the walk, trees have been planted in honor of the 161 people who died in the tornado. The final tree was dedicated Tuesday, as well as a sculpture to commemorate the 130,000 volunteers who helped with disaster relief.
Speaker Hal Donaldson, founder of Convoy of Hope, a Springfield-based humanitarian organization, said the town inspired the nation with its spirit and commitment.
Earlier in the day, Joplin families participated in groundbreaking ceremonies to replace four schools leveled by the tornado — Irving and Emerson elementary schools, East Middle School and Joplin High School.
Irving and Emerson elementary schools will be combined, and a new elementary school will be built near the middle school.
Voters passed a $62 million bond issue for school construction projects last month.
The majority of children who attended Irving and Emerson elementary schools also lost their homes in the tornado, but the school year has gone surprising well, said Hollie DeBerry, PTO president for Emerson Elementary.*
"I don't think anyone thought we would be this far in just one year. To start school on time was one thing, but to have all three groundbreakings just a year later is incredible," DeBerry said.
Tuesday's anniversary was a day to remember and honor those whose lives were lost, and many said the groundbreakings became a way to celebrate the future.
Seeing the children at the ceremonies made everything worthwhile, said C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin school system.
"The groundbreaking gives us hope," said Emerson fourth-grade teacher Brittany Pittman, 32. "It takes our eagles from somewhere temporary and gives them a home."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.