59 Weeks After Joplin’s Tornado.

Over the next five days, Stry.us will be telling stories about Joplin, Mo., 59 weeks after one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in American history. But we’re focused on what’s happening now in this town of 50,000 in Southwest Missouri — and what’s happening next.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published July 11, 2012

This part you already know, but it never ceases to boggle the mind, so I’ll repeat it for you anyway: On May 22, 2011, one of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded touched down in Joplin, Mo., killing 161 people. It arrived on the western side of the city limits and swept all the way through town, the storm more than a half-mile wide. It crossed Main and Rangeline, and took everything it touched.

In its wake, it left 3 million cubic yards of debris. It destroyed 4,000 homes, and damaged another 3,500. More than 17,000 lives were officially affected by the tornado [1], but the effects spread far beyond any metric FEMA could put together. On the Enhanced Fujita Scale [2], Joplin’s tornado registered an EF5, the strongest possible classification, with winds topping 200 miles per hour.

It came. It touched down. It destroyed.

And then a funny thing happened: The people of Joplin stayed — and started to build.

You know part of this story already, too. This wasn’t like Biloxi, Miss., when locals fled the city as the hurricane closed in on the Gulf. After Katrina, much of the city had already evacuated. In Joplin, the day after the storm, people woke up in their city, looked over the rubble and the blanket expanse of devastation, and then they started anew.

They’ve had help. Billions of dollars have come into the city — some in the form of insurance checks, some in government relief, some from donations. As of June 13, 134,888 volunteers have come to the city to take part in the relief efforts, the local AmeriCorps office estimates. Those volunteers have given 832,577.5 hours of service [3] to this city.

This week is the one year and seven week anniversary of the storm. Around town, the 3 million cubic yards of debris are nearly gone. Nearly four out of five businesses damaged by the storm are back open. At one point, 586 families were living in temporary homes. Now that number is down to 251, FEMA officials say.

The word “normal” gets thrown around town fairly often, though even at this point, it’s still more of an aspiration than a reality. But it’s astonishing to see how far along Joplin’s already come.

Take what’s happening today on South Connor Street. Today is Friday, July 6, 2012, exactly 411 days after the tornado swept through the town. There are about 50 people gathered outside in 104-degree heat to celebrate the opening of three new homes. These are the 48th, 49th and 50th homes that Habitat for Humanity has built in Joplin this year. They will build more than 65 homes this year, local Habitat officials say.

In 2011, they built four.

The word “normal” gets thrown around town fairly often, though even at this point, it’s still more of an aspiration than a reality. But it’s astonishing to see how far along Joplin’s already come.

But a tornado this deadly creates demand for boots on the ground and hammers in hands. So after two months of building, hours and hours of “sweat equity” and help from 150 volunteers, three families are about to move into these three new homes on their brand new block: The Thompson family into 2403 Connor; the Gutierrez family into 2405; and the Hayes family into 2409.

One property owner, Jereme Glenn, donated all three lots to Habitat. [4] Then Habitat took over, bringing in the volunteers and tools and turning empty lots into new homes.

Today, the Thompson family, the Gutierrez family and the Hayes family are walking across the thresholds of their new homes for the first time.

Not all home re-openings are celebrated this way. Some are quiet affairs. Others are blowouts on par with the Super Bowl. Across the street, there are seven unusual homes, all built by “Extreme Makeover” for national TV. The day those homes opened, thousands of volunteers and locals came out.

There may not be a stranger-looking block in America. The “Extreme Makeover” homes don’t seem to belong in an old mining town in Southwest Missouri — not the home with pink shutters, or the one that looks mildly like it belongs on the Jetsons, and definitely not the one with a surfboard in the front yard. [5] There is a plot across the street that’s just a patch of dirt, and one home that’s built but stands empty.

One block over, there’s a lot with nothing left but the base of a home. Grass grows out of the front steps. The for-sale sign is spray-painted onto the wooden skeleton of the frame.

Then there are the new neighbors in the 2400 block of South Connor. Today, three new families are moving in.

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The Thompson family, ready to receive the keys to their new home.
(Above) The Thompson family, about to receive the keys to their new home on South Connor. (At top) What’s left of Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo.

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There isn’t a made-for-TV kind of crowd on hand today, but there is a crowd. They stand in the hay on the families’ new front yards. Grass hasn’t started growing yet.

There are local reps from Habitat and local insurance companies on stage. They take the microphone and say their piece. But the people the crowd has come to see are the families. They wait their turns, standing 15 minutes under the new awning on the porch of 2405. Then they’re given the microphone.

Says Sabrina Hayes, a sleeve of tattoos on her right arm: “I am very, very, very happy to be home.”

Says Stephen Gutierrez, in a quiet voice: “I’m just glad to be a new homeowner. I’m feeling the joy right now.”

Says Joy Thompson, who smiles and smiles and looks back at the building behind her: “That’s our home. That’s our home.”

There is excitement here, and it’s nothing like what I saw two years ago in Biloxi. People on the Gulf Coast felt forgotten and often angry about what had happened to them. They felt left out of the national conversation, and it hurt them.

Joplin has felt the attention, the dollars — and the love. They have plenty of reason for optimism.

In Biloxi, the message five years after Katrina was, “Help!”

In Joplin, the message 59 weeks after the tornado is, “Hope.”

And the difference is massive. Even FEMA, a punching bag across the Gulf Coast, seems to have a good reputation around town. In Joplin, they’re mostly appreciative of the presence of the feds. One of the families moving into a Habitat home sums up the feeling nicely: “We love FEMA, and we appreciate everything they did for us, but we’re ready to take baths.”

There is thankfulness to be found in Joplin.

Some things, though, a year and change doesn’t fix. Drive through the center of town and you’ll see a wide swath of nothing where the storm blew through. There are many empty slabs. There are no trees.

This is a Google Maps satellite image of South Connor, taken right after the storm. Even from space, it’s easy to see: Joplin’s a tree-lined kind of town.

Except for that strange blank strip right in the center of town. Right there, where the tornado carved through Joplin, the city goes as flat and barren as the plains of Kansas.

Some things 59 weeks cannot fix.

But there is much that has happened in those 59 weeks. And I’ll be upfront with you: The Stry.us team cannot tell you much of it. We were not here in the weeks after the storm.

I can tell you what it’s like to eat a bison burger at Eagle Drive-In, just a few blocks away from the tornado’s deadly path. I can tell you what it’s like to step inside City Hall, which used to be a department store. I can tell you what sound a mother makes when she’s handed the keys to her new home. I can tell you what it’s like to look at Mercy Hospital, ripped apart and hollowed out, looking like an abandoned parking garage, and wondering, What force could’ve been so great to have done that?

But no, I cannot tell you what it was like to crouch in a bathtub on May 22, 2011, just a few hours before dusk, and hope that the wind coming down from the sky would not strike and take me away. I cannot, because I was not here, nor on the day after that, or any of the 400 some days between then and today.

I cannot tell you what happened on May 22, and besides, that part you already know.

“We love FEMA, and we appreciate everything they did for us, but we’re ready to take baths.”

Instead, the Stry.us team and I have come to tell you what’s happening now in Joplin — and what’s happening next. We know that the people here in Joplin cannot see far into the future. But they will try, because their lives depend on what comes next.

There are not a lot of reporters who come out for the 59 week anniversary of one of the deadliest tornadoes in American history. Two months ago, every TV crew in the country was standing on a slab in Joplin, telling America about the one-year anniversary. Now they’ve mostly gone. But these people in Joplin had everything ripped away from them by a 200 mph burst of wind that came down from the sky. They deserve more than to be remembered on even-numbered anniversaries.

We are here to tell the story of what happens now. Over the next five days, all of our stories here on Stry.us will be from Joplin. You will not see many stories about May 22, but you will feel its effects throughout all of the stories we’ll be telling this week. You will hear about the businesses that have opened; about the families that still live in FEMA trailers; and the big plans they have for the future.

You have heard the story of Joplin then, but I’m betting that you haven’t heard much about the story of Joplin right now — as it stands on the verge of something pretty remarkable. And it all starts right here, 59 weeks later on South Connor, with three families taking one step back towards normal.

I leave the post-ribbon cutting celebrations for a little while, and then come back again as the sun sets on this Friday. The moonbounce is gone. The local TV cameras are gone.

There are some families sitting on their porches, chatting, throwing footballs around. Mostly, there is quiet.

This is what it looks like when the cameras are gone, when the hype and hoopla dies down, when all that’s left is a city and the people who want to build a life here.

This is the story of Joplin, 59 weeks later.

Sunset over Joplin, as seen from South Connor Street.
Sunset over Joplin, as seen from South Connor Street.