Hundreds of Joplin families found themselves homeless after the tornado. The Slimps are one of them. Now they’re trying to find a way out of their temporary FEMA trailer and back into a normal life.
story by Sarah Elms / photos by Sarah Elms and Dan Oshinsky
published July 14, 2012
The walls of Candice Slimp’s trailer are a warm taupe, a welcome contrast to the harsh white of the trailer’s exterior. The place feels lived in: Shoes lay kicked off in the entryway; dishes drip-dry on the rack next to the sink; framed photos of Candice’s children are on display throughout the house. The living room is furnished with a couch, armchair, rug, coffee table, two end tables, lamps and a TV. Although the living space is a bit condensed — the TV is literally three inches away from the refrigerator, as is the sofa from the kitchen table — the place looks homey.
But Candice doesn’t even feel close to being home.
At first glance, there are only two things that set Candice’s trailer apart from the other 11 that surround it: White numbers spray-painted on the rusting hitch  and a red T-shirt hung in place of a curtain in the window of her front door.
On the outside, they all look the same. White, sterile, aluminum rectangles with wooden steps built up to meet the flimsy doors hinged on to either side of the structure. They sit one-by-one in two patient rows, six on each side. Their yards consist of gravel, with tufts of grass poking out from under the stones. The quiet community is surrounded on every side by fields of green corn stalks shooting up from the ground. The taller the corn grows, the easier it is to miss the trailers, especially if you don’t know they’re there.
The park doesn’t have a name. Its residents just say they live off of 43 and 96, as Highway 96 is the only road that connects them to the rest of Joplin.
In between the neat rows of trailers is a line of smaller structures that resemble standalone storage units or utility closets, but they don’t contain any circuit breakers, electrical cords or plumbing. They are storm shelters, something no one wants to be without after last year’s tornado. Each has four walls and a roof made out of concrete, paid for by a local church.
In many ways, each family that lives at this site is the same. Their homes were destroyed or declared unlivable in the aftermath of a storm that no one will ever forget; their lives were changed in a matter of minutes. They salvaged what they could, registered for disaster assistance with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and got themselves on a list to be considered for temporary housing.  And then they waited.
There wasn’t much choice in the process; if a unit became available, they took it. One by one, they moved out of cramped motel rooms and spare bedrooms of friends and family members and into temporary housing provided by the federal government. Most occupants are located in three group sites on city-owned land near the Joplin Airport, but there are pads at 12 private mobile home parks where FEMA trailers are located as well. All trailers are three-bedroom, one-bath homes.
Not all who lost their homes in the storm applied for FEMA assistance. 7,500 dwellings were damaged or destroyed, according to city figures. 9,200 people were displaced by the storm.
But at the peak of the post-storm housing crisis — Oct. 3, 2011 — only 586 families were living in mobile homes provided by FEMA. As of July 9, that number was down to 251, according to FEMA. The first FEMA mobile home, installed at a commercial park, was occupied on June 15. The agency has agreed to provide housing for up to 18 months, dating from the May 9 disaster declaration , not from the date of move-in. That means the 251 families still living in the parks must find alternative housing by Nov. 9.
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Candice, 29, was a newly single mom when the storm hit. Two weeks before the tornado, she and her two children, Gwen, 7, and Gavin, 3, moved out of her grandfather’s house and into the Oak Meadows Apartments on 15th Street and Michigan Avenue. It was Candice’s first place of her own, and she had paid her security deposit and two months of rent. For the first time since separating from her husband — and moving out of their home — earlier that year, she felt secure.
On May 22, 2011, Candice was at work at Fashion Bug on 7th Street, and Gwen and Gavin were staying at their dad’s on 28th Street and Pearl Avenue until Candice got off work. She watched out the store’s windows as the rain and wind started to swirl, but – like so many others – didn’t think the storm would be different from those that came before it. “We didn’t think nothing of it,” Candice says. “I was out at the window watching the trees go back and forth.” When it was all over, people came into the store with stories of what they had seen. Candice started to worry, so she left work early to go pick up her kids.
“At first I was driving, and there’s back-to-back cars, and I saw power lines down, and I was like, ‘What, is there a wreck or something?’ I still had no clue that the tornado had went down,” Candice says. “And I was looking around at all the people’s faces, and they were just as clueless as me. We were all just in awe.”
It wasn’t until Candice approached the hospital and turned down Rangeline Road that she saw the magnitude of the damage, and fear set in. She barely recognized the town where she had spent her entire life. “At that point I was driving to go find my children, and there were cars turned over, there were cars in the trees. It was so scary,” Candice says, her voice shaking, eyes tearing up. “But I had this peace about my kids. I had a peace that they were going to be OK.”
While Candice was watching the trees bending out the window of Fashion Bug, Gwen and Gavin were in the basement of their dad’s home, huddled under the pool table with his wife and her two children. Gwen says her dad held the basement door shut to keep debris from flying down the stairs, and them from flying out.
“It tears my heart apart,” Candice says. “I wasn’t there.”
Candice sped toward her kids, but all the familiar landmarks had been destroyed. She wasn’t quite sure of where she was, and she drove off the road several times to avoid a slew of debris.  “Finally, I just turned and there they were! Standing in the road,” Candice says. “All of them were alive. I was so thankful.” They had escaped the destruction unscathed, but the house was unsalvageable.
“We had a tree-lined neighborhood,” Candice says. “All the trees were down, there were power lines everywhere. The houses – just roofs and walls gone … You could see inside people’s houses. You’d never seen anything like it.”
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Candice made it to her brother’s house on 2nd Street just after dark and curled up with her children to sleep. She hadn’t been able to make it back to her apartment to see if it had been spared by the storm because the roads were blocked. She’d have to check in the morning. “That was such an empty feeling,” Candice says. “Because you get up the next day and you’re like, ‘I don’t even want to get up. What just happened?’”
The next morning, Candice ventured over to her apartment. “It needed to be demolished. It could not be lived in,” Candice says. “We had just moved in there. This is our new beginning, and it was just taken away.” For the second time in a year, Candice was at a loss for a home.
Like the hundreds of other individuals displaced by the tornado’s destruction, Candice put her name on a waiting list for temporary housing. Candice was sure she’d move back into her apartment once the complex was rebuilt, but for now, she needed a place to stay. At the same time, FEMA was working closely with the city and the state to secure locations to establish mobile home communities throughout the city.
Candice has never met the man who owns the land atop which her trailer sits. Roger Hines is the co-owner of several businesses, including Jordan Disposal, Gator Demolition, Blackcat Trucking and U.S. Assets Recovery. He made his uninhabited property off Highway 96 available to FEMA to use as a temporary housing site within Joplin. His demolition and disposal companies were already working day in and day out to remove debris and tear down damaged buildings, but the property gave him the chance to provide a service that was a little more personal.
At one point, Hines had previously operated a trailer park on the property, but after a tornado wiped everything out in 2004, he decided not to reopen. The lot sat vacant for seven years until, oddly enough, another tornado prompted Hines to put it to use. With thousands displaced in the Joplin community after the storm, Hines wanted to do anything he could to help, and his land was already outfitted with the plumbing and electrical infrastructure necessary to support up to 20 mobile homes.
It took several weeks for Hines and FEMA to work out all the logistics, but by the end of June, plans to install FEMA trailers on Hines’ property were laid out. His site is one of 12 private parks on which FEMA trailers are currently set up.
“We had just moved in there. This is our new beginning, and it was just taken away.”
While the Slimps waited for a housing assignment, Candice’s friend Sarah took them in. For several months the family lived in a spare bedroom furnished with a twin bed and two cots, with their clothes packed in garbage bags.
Gwen had been attending Irving Elementary, which was completely destroyed by the storm. Not only that, but Gwen and Gavin’s day care center and their father’s home and vehicle were also damaged beyond repair. Candice was desperate to give her kids something concrete, especially in time for Gwen to start at her new school come September.
“That was when I think they were finally like, ‘OK, we’re ready for her. She’s got two kids.’ We had to wait the whole summer for that one,” Candice says.
In August, the Slimps moved into their temporary home, a FEMA-issued trailer in Hines’ park off Highway 96. “I remember them giving me the keys, and I was like, ‘Finally! We get our own home, they get their own rooms,’” Candice says. She can’t believe it’s almost been a year since she got hold of those keys.
For the Slimps, it seemed the worst was over. They had a place to live where they weren’t imposing on family or friends – at least for the next 15 months. They no longer had to worry about rent or utilities – FEMA pays for it all. Candice also qualifies for food stamps and receives child support checks, so she can afford necessities like groceries and toiletries.
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As fall set in, Candice soon found that her post-tornado struggles were not over yet. She was still adjusting to a more secluded life on the outskirts of town and dealing with pre-tornado challenges like taking care of two children as a single mother living off a low income. Reconstructing her life proved to be more difficult than she expected.
“I had to get Gwennie to school, have gas to have her get to school, and then I still had Gavin, who did not have the day care anymore, and I still had my job, and the job’s pretty much paying me to get there and back,” Candice says. The days when Candice would try to start her car to take Gwen to school, only to realize she was out of gas, became all too frequent. Gwen’s attendance slipped, and with day care no longer an option, Candice had to cut back her hours at Fashion Bug to stay home with her children.
It was around October when Candice decided she couldn’t continue to juggle everything; the stress was getting to be too much. “I had kind of a breakdown. It really got to me … I didn’t think it really affected my life, I didn’t think it did, but now that I look back, it was really difficult. It really was.”
Candice quit her job and focused on her family. She moved Gwen to another school, one with a bus service to get her to and from school, and Candice got herself a disaster case manager  through Catholic Charities to help her piece her life back together. The case managers have the financial resources to provide things like gas cards or minutes on cell phones, but more importantly, they have connections with individuals and organizations who want to help those still affected by the storm.  Case managers also connect people to mental health professionals to help families deal with the grief and stress that stems from any traumatic, life-changing event.
Renee White, chair of the Joplin Area Long Term Recovery Committee (LTRC), has been a social worker in Joplin for 29 years. In her role on the committee, she works closely with the case managers to ensure that the needs of disaster victims are still being met. White believes addressing emotional stability is key in the overall recovery process of the community.
“I think the whole sense of change, and when change happens that we didn’t pick, then you have a greater complication of loss and grief,” White says. “It’s complicated because it wasn’t a choice you made, it was taken from you.”
Even though hundreds of families were experiencing the same hardships as the Slimps, Candice felt like she was going at it alone. When they first moved out to the park, everybody there kept to themselves; they were still reeling.
But the daze didn’t last forever. Eventually, neighbors began to talk. They swapped stories, got to know each other, and realized they were all in the same boat. Candice says she and Chera Granger – Chera and her husband Brad were the first to move into the park – were the first in the secluded community to bond and help each other out. While the park still doesn’t have the feel of a true neighborhood, its residents take comfort knowing someone else is looking out for them.
“It helped to have somebody out here because I felt so alone in the first place,” Candice says. “It was really cool.”
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Now, Candice feels much more stability in her life than she did back in October. She has a plan of action, a supportive boyfriend and emotional stability. That, and she has a new FEMA housing advisor who meets her at her level. “She’s got my back,” Candice says.
As part of the temporary housing contract through FEMA, each household is assigned a housing advisor whom they check in with every 30 days. The housing advisor makes sure that the head of the household is employed or actively working toward employment and helps construct a realistic permanent housing plan.
“I have to get a job, which is fine with me!” Candice says, smiling. “I’m actually ready to go back out into the world, finally.” Candice says her housing advisor has changed every two months or so, so she never had someone who was working with her throughout the entire process. However, she credits her renewed confidence in her future to her latest advisor, Crystal.
“She just comes at me where I’m at,” Candice says. “She knows my position, and she tells me that I can do this. She’s just really good at patting me on the back and telling me that I’m doing well and that I’m going to do better.”
One of the LTRC’s top priorities in the current phase of recovery is to work with FEMA to help families move out of the temporary housing units and obtain a permanent address. White, of LTRC, says most of the households remaining in the FEMA trailers came from an economically marginalized population prior to the tornado. For many, homeownership has never been an option; some were renting from government-subsidized housing, much of which was destroyed.
“Part of the story for people who remain in the trailer parks is, what I would say, choices. Options. The options have narrowed for them,” White says. “Prior to the tornado, probably, they didn’t have a lot of options, and unfortunately the infrastructure of our community has narrowed their options as well.”
The lucky ones will move back into their rebuilt, pre-disaster homes — and some already have. For the Slimps, however, moving back to their apartment is not an option. The complex has been rebuilt and is under new management, and the new landlords aren’t about to take any chances. Candice has a history of bad credit – she has some debt – but because she was able to pay for two months of rent and had a steady job, the landlord at Oak Meadows gave her a chance. But that was before the storm.
“You know, the tornado took that from me. It’s not my fault that these people did this for me,” Candice says, her voice rising. “This is my pre-disaster home and you’re going to take it from me? It’s not right.”
Since the storm, many landlords have tightened the criteria that their tenants must meet  or substantially bumped up monthly rent, essentially excluding people from lower income brackets like Candice.
White describes the predicament these families face like living in a hallway. “You don’t really have a door in front of you that’s open yet, but the door behind you is already closed. You’re living not knowing when the next door is going to open or what it’s going to be.”
Felicia VonHolten, a voluntary agency liaison employed by FEMA who works with the LTRC, says Nov. 9 is the day the FEMA temporary housing is scheduled to end. That means everyone currently living in a FEMA mobile home must have an alternative housing plan by that date. However, he state of Missouri has the option to ask the federal government for an extension. As of now, she says that is a conversation that is yet to be had.
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Candice sits on her couch, sipping generic-brand orange soda out of a pink plastic cup, reflecting on the last 59 weeks. “Obviously all of this had to happen for a reason,” Candice says. “It’s rocked my life.” She talks about the Joplin she’s lived in all her life, where everybody knows everybody, where people sit out on their front porches drinking tea and watching the cars go by. Even her boyfriend, Travis, who moved to Joplin from Louisville to be closer to his mom and grandma after the storm, says he’s learned what a tight-knit community the town is.
Joplin has made remarkable progress since last May, but driving down Rangeline, seeing where her high school once stood, is still tough for Candice. “It’s just sad, empty, sickening. It’s just like it will never be the same again,” Candice says.
She wishes FEMA wouldn’t have placed her at a site so far removed from town, and she wonders if she would be back on her feet by now if she had a consistent housing advisor. But Candice is grateful for the stability she does have. She says she doesn’t know what she would have done if it weren’t for FEMA.
Gwen and Gavin run in from their rooms to bring Mom a love note and one of their six-week-old kittens. Candice smiles, takes turns stroking each child’s hair and gives them kisses. She really is thankful, she says — her family is alive and well, and they have a furnished, private home with food in the cupboards.
Candice marvels at how different her life is from a year ago – sometimes she still can’t believe it – but she’s happy and looking toward the future. She’s taking the right steps to be able to move into a permanent address, to make it on her own like she was before the storm.
She wants permanence, but all she has is a temporary solution.
For now, it’ll have to do.
Stry.us reporter Roman Stubbs contributed reporting to this story.