JOPLIN, Mo. —Empty concrete pads where houses once stood. Untouched playgrounds still riddled with broken glass. A once-bustling retail district, eerily quiet on a weekend night.
Two months after a huge tornado split Joplin in half, the recovery here has barely begun, and the city remains focused on cleaning up massive mounds of debris. But local leaders say Joplin and the neighboring village of Duquesne already face another question: How much to rebuild and how much to reinvent?
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, what we really want to do is return to business as usual, go back to exactly what was there at the earliest possible time, get everyone back in their homes," said Bob Berkebile, a Kansas City architect and disaster recovery specialist who has been working informally as a consultant in Joplin. "But I have never seen a community where they couldn't have made a decision to build back something different."
In Joplin, city officials, neighborhoods and families are beginning to confront decisions that involve trade-offs of cost, speed, quality and uncertainty: whether to strengthen building codes to produce better houses, but also some delay; to plot out more parks and amenities that would raise the quality of life, but require detailed planning; to require new storm safety features that would balance peace of mind against more expense for those of modest incomes.
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Following the experience of other storm-damaged cities is difficult because of the scope of the damage in Joplin.
More than 7,000 homes were destroyed in the city of 50,000. The May 22 tornado killed 159 people, displaced 5,000 workers, smashed 10 public school buildings and ruined 18,000 cars. The funnel left a trail of damage nearly 14 miles after touching down.
Planners say they draw inspiration from the tornado-ravaged Kansas town of Greensburg, which rebuilt with an environmentally friendly approach that has earned international acclaim. New homes used recycled materials, energy-saving lights and rainwater collection systems.
But Greensburg, which was struck in 2007, was a town of only 1,400. So far, specific proposals for Joplin are in short supply.
Still, there are signs of recovery across the damage zone. Roughly 70 percent of the nearly 2 million cubic yards of loose debris has been trucked to landfills.
A 60-day city moratorium on new construction, enacted in mid-June, generated protests that it would keep those ready to rebuild now from returning to Joplin. The city announced Friday that it would start issuing building permits for a larger swath of the stricken area and already has issued nearly 1,700 residential building permits to repair tornado damage.