JOPLIN — The draft beer and whiskey shots flow freely at the sparkling new Joplin Elks Lodge 501, a distant hallway plaque the only visible reminder that three members and a bartender cleaning up after Sunday bingo died in a monster tornado that forever grafted a little-known southwest Missouri city into the nation's disaster lexicon.
A "tornado village" set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is virtually abandoned, with only a handful of families remaining in a place that once housed hundreds. Destroyed stores have long since reopened, daily rituals and routines restored for many whose lives were dramatically disrupted when the May 22, 2011, twister tore through town.
While a casual visitor could easily pass through Joplin without realizing it was practically flattened by a tornado two years ago, locals — who on Wednesday remembered the 161 people who died — won't ever forget. And when tragedy struck the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, just three hours to the southwest, Joplin residents again realized just how close the past remains.
Ten Joplin police officers and four firefighters immediately headed to the Oklahoma town where 24 people were killed Monday. While the death toll did not approach that of Joplin, the devastation was staggering: 17 miles of destruction that tore through thousands of homes and other structures.
As they drove into town, Joplin Police Lt. Sloan Rowland noticed much of what his city faced two years earlier, including shell-shocked residents standing amid seemingly endless debris.
"Quite truthfully, as soon as we pulled in and started seeing debris, the smells ... it brought back a lot of memories," he said.
They joined departments from all over that also had headed toward Moore on instinct. Some officers helped secure checkpoints, others assisted at a church where parents worried about their missing children were gathered. They worked overnight and with their help no longer needed by Tuesday morning, they headed back to Joplin less than a day after they arrived.
"If nothing else, it was a show of support and solidarity," Rowland said. "We can never repay all that was given to us."
By any measure, Joplin's short-term recovery has been impressive, and the city hopes to serve in some ways as a model for Moore and other communities struck by disaster. More than 4,000 damaged homes have been repaired. Nearly 1,100 are completely rebuilt. City officials estimate population losses at just 5 percent from the 2010 Census of 50,175 — with many of those displaced residents moving to nearby towns.
An ambitious, $800 million rebuilding effort is moving more slowly, with the city and its Texas-based master developer buying land for a new library and multiplex movie theater in a once-cratered commercial corridor. Federal support continues, with $45 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funding awarded in October 2012 and another $113 million of such grants just two months ago.
On Wednesday, the Economic Development Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, announced another $20 million grant to Joplin. The money will be used to redevelop the city's 20th Street commercial district.
Still, Joplin boosters worry the sheen of success could mask a less hyped reality: For all the positive headlines, plenty of people still struggle to find work, or feed their families, or recover from haunting trauma.
"We've had so many successes, it's almost built a facade," said Jerrod Hogan, executive director of the nonprofit Rebuild Joplin, which has rebuilt 74 homes with another dozen under construction. After linking up with a New Orleans-based aid group formed after Hurricane Katrina, Rebuild Joplin has reached out to other communities recovering from natural disasters, including those hit by Hurricane Sandy. Hogan is headed to Moore, Okla., on Thursday.
Clay and Melissa Morgan and their four children soon expect to move into their own new home with Rebuild Joplin's help. For now, the family of six — plus Clay Morgan's mother — call a 600-square-foot FEMA modular unit home. They're one of only a dozen families left in a dormant trailer park on the outskirts of town.
Cramped quarters aside, the Morgans count their blessings. They lost their previous home, and Clay Morgan has yet to find work after the owner of the cab company where he worked sold the business, but no one was seriously injured after the family huddled behind a mattress in their hallway when the twister hit.
For 7-year-old Eli Morgan, the storm shelter located a quick dash from his temporary home is "a bank vault for people," a structure in which he's had to nervously wait out tornado warnings but also has adapted into his own personal concrete playpen.
Melissa Morgan keeps a scrapbook stuffed with newspaper clippings and photos of the destruction alongside the more traditional displays of baby pictures, toddler drawings and the like.
"I want the kids to remember," she said. "One day, I want them to look back and see what we went through."
Unlike a year ago, when thousands recalled the Joplin tornado's one-year anniversary with a four-mile "Walk of Unity" through many of the most damaged neighborhoods, the city held a more modest event Wednesday: a family picnic at Cunningham Park featuring displays about the recovery effort. The park sits across from a neatly manicured tract that one year ago still contained the twisted rubble of St. John's Regional Medical Center. The since-renamed hospital is under construction a few miles away.
"Recovery is a journey, not a destination," said Jane Cage, a Joplin business owner who helps lead a citizens' advisory "recovery team." ''I'm not certain if I'll be able to mark a day for Joplin to say that it has recovered. I'm not really sure where the finish line is. Or even if there is one."