JOPLIN — Jim Hemphill remembers the way the First Community Church looked right after the tornado in May 2011.
"There was no debris in the building," he said. "The tornado sucked it all out. It's hard to imagine that much power."
On Monday, Hemphill, a member of the church's board of directors, watched as workers put the final touches on a new sidewalk near the entrance. Inside, workers were installing the last pieces of stained glass in the sanctuary. Soon, new pews will be arriving.
"It's essentially done now," he said. "And, we're really excited about getting it done."
Now, 17 months later, a handful of the 25 or so churches that were either destroyed or damaged by the tornado are preparing to reopen. The First Community Church should open later this month.
Also reopening is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which will have an open house for the public later this week.
Other churches are deep into construction. Among those are Harmony Heights Baptist Church; St. James United Methodist Church; and Generations Free Will Baptist Church.
The interior of Faith Baptist Church is nearing completion. It hopes to reopen in January. The foundation for the Christian Science Church is being poured.
Unlike the other projects that involve reconstruction from the ground up, the work at the First Community Church has involved a painstaking restoration of an early 1960s structure that, for the most part, withstood the storm.
"It's been a long 17 months," said Dave Mason, a church member who volunteered to coordinate the reconstruction of the church. "I can't wait to get my life back."
When the huge, stained-glass window on the church's east side was installed, building codes permitted a type of stone-on-stone construction that would not be permitted today. To overcome this setback, the church hired three architects to design a replacement window to meet today's building codes.
"It's a totally different design that is a lot more secure and stable than what we had before," Mason said.
Church members provided personal photographs that were used to reconstruct the look of the window.
"It's not like you can run down to Lowe's or Home Depot and get the things you need for it," Mason said. "The stone was dug up out of the ground and cut in Indiana. The glass was hand-blown in Germany. It was all handmade and put together by a company (Soos Stained Glass) in Arkansas.
"The ceiling above represents a floating cloud. Every color in the window represents life. There are 365 pieces of stained glass to represent each day of the year. It was all handmade."
Mason said about $3.5 million has been spent restoring the church.
"If you had to do it from scratch, it would have cost millions and millions of dollars," he said. "It's one of a kind. The building is great, but it's the people inside the church that make it truly special."
The tornado destroyed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost exactly 50 years after the church had been constructed on open land east of Joplin High School.
Creed Jones, a member of the church, said: "This building is not tornado-proof. I don't think you can build something that can withstand an EF-5 tornado. But it is very safe. Everything is reinforced."
At 21,043 square feet, the new church is about 25 percent larger than the one it replaces. The design, which includes room for growth, is based on a popular and functional floor plan that has been used by other Mormon churches worldwide.
The church houses three of the 13 Mormon congregations in the Tri-State Area. The Joplin church, which was founded in 1921, serves as the stake, or home unit, for those congregations.
Jones said the new church, which is equipped with the latest video and audio technology, was constructed closer to Indiana Avenue than the previous church.
"A feature you don't often see on our churches is a lighted steeple," Jones said. "We wanted our steeple to serve as a beacon of hope."