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Amid tornado's devastation, signs of hope in Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo. — Standing on a hill in what used to be a residential neighborhood in Joplin, Chuck Schneider took a moment to survey his surroundings.

Devastation stretched to the horizon almost everywhere he looked in this town of 49,000 in the southwest corner of Missouri.

"I've seen a lot of tornado damage over the years," Schneider said quietly on a sun-splashed afternoon last week, "but I've never seen anything like this."

Mature trees were turned into tortured twigs. Piles of rubble replaced homes. Crushed vehicles looked as though they'd been through a trash compactor.

Nearly a month after an EF5 tornado slashed Joplin from one end of town to the other, Schneider is in the midst of a three-week stint as director of disaster relief operations for the Red Cross.

"I've never been this far into an operation when I did not have a feel for when we were going to shut down," said Schneider, 74, who lives in Derby and has volunteered for the Red Cross since 1999. "I have no idea when that will happen here."

The May 22 tornado is blamed for 154 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries in and around Joplin, officials say. It is the nation's deadliest tornado in more than 60 years.

The Red Cross has been providing shelter for those who had nowhere else to go after the disaster. As many as 19 emergency response vehicles have been providing meals, fluids and supplies in the debris zone.

Schneider oversees the services the Red Cross is providing in Joplin, including the operation of the shelter, the deployment of the emergency response vehicles, and assisting of victims.

Teams of volunteers meet with families who lost loved ones in the tornado.

The teams include a nurse to discuss medical issues, a mental health worker, a case worker who tries to link survivors with services they need and — for the first time in the agency's history — a minister.

With more than 150 families to visit, Schneider said, the task has been time-consuming and emotionally draining for the teams.

"Our mental health folks have been quite busy the past week," he said. "A lot of people are starting to show some emotions.

"I think that's something you see after a while," when the shock of the tragedy and then the adrenaline begin to wear off, he said.

The enormousness of Joplin's personal losses is settling in, too. Everyone in Joplin knows people who were killed or seriously injured, he said.

Red Cross officials expect to spend up to $2.5 million on disaster services in Joplin — about what the agency spent in Greensburg, spokesman James Williams said.

Path of destruction

The Joplin tornado churned from one end of town to the other along a path stretching 22 miles. At one point, weather officials have said, it was nearly a mile wide.

The tornado achieved EF5 strength at times, with winds topping 200 mph. Over much of its journey through Joplin, the tornado was at least an EF4, with winds from 166 to 200 mph.

"It was such a slow-moving tornado," said David Kolarik, public information officer for the U.S. Corps of Engineers. "It was like putting a blender on high and moving through town."

More than 7,500 structures — homes, businesses, churches, schools — were damaged or destroyed over an area spanning three square miles.

That's more than six times the number of structures damaged or destroyed when an EF5 tornado all but wiped Greensburg off the map in 2007.

A new volunteer asked Schneider the other day, "How will I know when I'm in the impact area?"

"If there's any question," Schneider said, "you're not in it."

Lending a hand

Over the past dozen years, Schneider has assisted with recovery efforts from all kinds of disasters — tornadoes, hurricanes, floods.

He worked for Boeing for more than 30 years before retiring in 1993. A few years later, he saw a notice about classes for volunteers to assist in disaster relief and thought that sounded interesting.

He was sent to Arkansas City to gather assessments in the wake of flooding there in late 1998. He also assisted victims after the tornado hit Haysville and south Wichita in May 1999.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, he spent about three months in a variety of locations — including the national headquarters in Washington.

Two years later, he found himself in a crowded church on the edge of Greensburg, helping people put their lives back together in one of the few buildings in town not destroyed by the tornado.

Considering the death toll and the scope of the damage, Schneider said, Joplin is worse than any of the tornado disasters he has worked.

"I've never seen vehicle damage this severe before," Schneider said. "Some of them look like they've been rolled and rolled and rolled."

The intensity of the devastation is still evident nearly a month after the tornado struck.

Houses look like they imploded as the tornado passed. Stately oaks, decades old, have been ripped out by the roots as if they were weeds being cleared from a garden.

Sheet metal, car parts and even a large mattress can still be seen wrapped around or laced into tree tops.

"Trees always tell you how bad it really was," Schneider said. "With houses, you don't know how well they were built, but trees can take a lot."

Signs of recovery

Signs of Joplin's recovery are already sprouting.

A new Walgreens is taking shape, its exterior walls completed less than a week after construction began where the old store had been.

Last week, for the first time since the tornado hit, a few hotel rooms began opening up around town.

The Red Cross has just one emergency shelter still open for those left homeless by the tornado — down from as many as eight, Schneider said.

There are about 25 people now using the shelter, he said, and many of them could end up using temporary shelters from FEMA.

The first 10 arrived last week, part of an initial order of 60 trailers, said Susie Stonner, a FEMA spokeswoman.

FEMA officials are canvassing tornado survivors to see how many of the units will be needed, Stonner said, and looking for locations in Joplin where the units can be set up. They'll need to have concrete pads and utility hookups.

Greensburg and Kiowa County residents used 243 of the trailers in 2007.

Cleanup work has slowed over the past few weeks as Joplin residents who lost their homes return to work.

"They're trying to get back to a sense of normalcy," said Lynn Onstot, public information officer for the city of Joplin.

More than 30,000 volunteers have registered to help in the recovery, officials say.

Authorities already have begun the long-term planning needed to rebuild from the tornado, Schneider said.

"It's going to take years for them to recover," he said.

But Joplin's attitude can be summed up by a scene near some of the worst destruction.

The tornado ripped away all but the second and third letters of the town's name on the brick sign in front of the high school.

An "h" and "e" have been crafted in duct tape on opposite sides of the remaining letters to create a new word:

Hope.

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