May 29, 2011

Post-tornado Joplin: What comes next

JOPLIN, Mo. —A week ago, although it seems an eternity now, life was good for Tim Kent and his family.

JOPLIN, Mo. —A week ago, although it seems an eternity now, life was good for Tim Kent and his family.

That was a little before 6 p.m. Sunday, May 22, when he and his wife, Jan, were hauling groceries from their car, and the sky turned black, and a deep, rumbling sound grew in the air, and their neighbor, Jim Eason, ran out and screamed:

"There is rotation above your house!"

The Kents dropped their groceries. They bolted into their home and shouted for their two teenage daughters to run. Alexandra, 19, a student at the University of Missouri, grabbed the family's pet rabbit. They hit the basement just before the house they had lived in for 19 years heaved, splintered and burst into a heap of debris.

As close as any, their home was at ground zero for one of the worst tornadoes on record, an EF-5 with 200 mph winds that took at least 132 lives, and destroyed more than 8,000 houses, apartments and businesses.

When the Kents emerged and looked at the devastation around them — some houses obliterated, others sheared in half — Tim Kent, 52 and an environmental engineer, knew that from that moment on "everything is different."

"It is like 9/11. There will be life before the tornado. And there will be life after the tornado," he said.

What comes next? Where will Joplin be a month from now? Where can it be in a few years?

Within hours of the disaster, even as ambulances still wailed through the night, city officials stood inside the justice center at a press conference and emphasized a message that would be repeated often: This city will rise from its knees.

"We will overcome this hardship," said City Manager Mark Rohr. "We will rebuild this city," Gov. Jay Nixon vowed, voicing rhetoric once heard in places like New Orleans and New York.

Few argue the importance of the message.

"It helps," said Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services for the Ozark Center, the mental health arm of Freeman Health Systems, a group of three hospitals in Joplin that, within 24 hours of the tornado, saw its mental health crisis calls jump from 500 a month to nearly 100 a day.

Hard work lies ahead

But the experiences of other tornado-ravaged towns speak to the hard work that lies ahead. Rubble will be cleared. Homes will be rebuilt. The economy will be spurred. Communities and neighbors will bond tighter by shared experience.

People also will pick up and move. With homes bulldozed, vacant lots will dot neighborhoods. The address "FEMAville" — for the thousands of displaced residents who will call Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers home for months to years — will become part of the local language.

In Greensburg, Kan., which was virtually wiped from the map by a tornado on May 4, 2007, fully half the population of 1,500 did not return.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., where an April 27 twister killed 41 people and destroyed or damaged 7,500 buildings, rubble still stretches for acres. Chainsaws still work to clear roads and yards. Thousands wait on insurance settlements and bank loans. People remain out of work.

No one knows yet how many Tuscaloosans will stay and rebuild and how many will just move on.

Only days removed from the Joplin tornado, Kent and his neighbors say they're still in shock.

Countless questions swirl in their minds, but one stands out.

"The question is 'Do I even want to live here anymore?' " said Ed McAllister, whose home was leveled. The family's car lay flipped upside down on top of the mound that was his house.

It's where he and his wife, Sheri, 47, raised Megan, 19, Lydia, 17, and Luke, 14. It's where their memories live: birthdays, Christmases. They celebrated Ed's 50th birthday with 50 people last week.

And yet he doesn't know. "Do I want to rebuild here?" he asks.

Greensburg's lessons

Some 300 miles to the west of Joplin in Greensburg, Kan., images of Sunday's wreckage stirred flashbacks.

Inside the town's new school complex — futuristic in design, with sunshine pouring in — recent TV reports predicting more tornadoes cast a shadow. They'd seen it before, in May 2007 when a tornado swallowed their little town.

Greensburg then looked just like Joplin now.

Eating lunch with his classmates, Rhylan Tedder, 10, looked into Joplin's future: "They'll meet a lot of people."

Oh, yes, Greensburg can attest, survivors of Joplin and Tuscaloosa will meet people.

They'll meet government people demanding documents lost, of course, in the storms. Driver's licenses, birth certificates, car titles and receipts.

They'll greet volunteers bearing household supplies for families doubling up or gutting it out, through a year or two, in FEMA trailers.

No doubt they'll meet shifty contractors who skip town or go bankrupt, forcing residents to pay for delivered supplies they thought were covered. Some who stayed in Greensburg poured $300,000 into new homes that may never sell for half that.

And if this south-central Kansas town of conspicuously young trees provides other lessons, this month's survivors will not see certain folks — like many of their old neighbors.

Renters go immediately. Dozens of Greensburg's elderly also left, joining offspring who moved to bigger places decades ago. The town had about 1,500 residents in 2000. The post-disaster population is about 780.

"Every six months, the outside public sees some update that shows us making progress. What they don't see is this everyday grind.... it's hard," said Scott Reineke, who runs a glass-art shop, Studio 54.

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