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This American Road

Experience America this summer with Andrew Burmon

Exploring Joplin, Missouri, Recovering From Disaster


The most terrifying thing about touring the disaster zone caused by the May 22 EF-5 tornado here is the randomness of the devastation, the sight of a vacant lot where a house once stood, literally across the street from a home still whole. The destruction that the storm wrought is already disappearing from view as the Corps of Engineers and contractors raze what's left of damaged structures. The empty lots, the clean slabs, the bare earth, these vacant holes in the cityscape were made so by backhoes and clean-up teams, not the winds and flying debris.

I downloaded an aerial image file for Google Earth, collected by aircraft on May 24, that shows in sickening detail the tornado's random walk through the city. Much, but not all, of the clean up has been done: A white van tossed against a fence on 24th Street, seen in the imagery, was still sitting there on August 1.

Traveling the American Road - Joplin, Missouri

By July 22, the city had issued roughly 1,700 building permits for reconstruction, as it simultaneously builds a mobile home park for storm survivors along Highway 171, north of downtown. Christened Jeff Taylor Field for a Kansas City-area police officer who died after suffering wounds during storm cleanup efforts, it will soon have nearly 500 homes. Many are already in place, and contractors continue working in the hot dust, grading sites and hooking up utilities in the 108-degree heat. Whether any much-needed shade trees will be part of the temporary development remains in doubt.

To orient myself to the destruction, I spoke with Lindsey Henry, a Texas native who moved to Joplin to report on the disaster for KOAM and KFJX and live with her extended family. She's in the tornado zone every day, she says, looking for stories, watching the recovery and likely breathing in asbestos dust and toxic fumes from the wreckage. It's a little-discussed aspect of the clean-up efforts, she points out, as is the tent city that's popped up south of town, drawing people not affected by the tornado to the area to take advantage of services for victims.

Visitors to Joplin, volunteers or otherwise, often head to St. Mary's, a church that was destroyed but for its 20-foot-high iron cross, now standing watch over the colossal field of debris. At dusk, a crew of demolition workers struck up a conversation. They're from Kansas City, in town to rip down the shells of buildings here. They were surprisingly dispassionate about the work, even the job of tearing down the church.

  • Joplin Tornado Zone
  • Joplin Tornado Zone
  • Joplin Tornado Zone
  • Joplin Tornado Zone
  • Joplin Tornado Zone
  • Joplin Tornado Zone

As we chatted, a woman came up to fill them in about her brother, who was working a job site nearby. Two thugs, she said, had assaulted him in order to steal scrap from the wreckage. The police have picked up a suspect, but she warned the workers to watch for more crimes and be on the lookout for a white crew-cab pickup.

More than two months after the storm ruined 30 percent of the city, Joplin is making surprisingly fast progress. Barren landscapes persist, but with a cleanup of 3 million cubic yards of debris almost complete, the city is looking forward to what's next. What, on this clean slate of a downtown, can be built to bring Joplin back stronger than before?

One local start-up has an answer. Rebuild Joplin is an ultra-light collective that sprung up after the storm to connect locals to the resources they'd need to rebuild. Started in less than 36 hours, it was so slick, so effective, so exactly what was needed in the wake of the large-scale destruction, FEMA interviewed co-founders Garen McMillian and Mark Kinsley to see if it was part of a scam. The agency was instead pleasantly surprised.

"This is helping Joplin maximize all the resources that are out there," Garen says. "If you can minimize duplication--you have a lot of people trying to do the same things out there--if we can keep the communication lines open so everybody's aware of what's already being done and they're not reinventing the wheel, then that's that much more energy that can be expended toward something concrete for Joplin."

The idea is simple: A website that aggregates information and connects people in need of services to the already extant agencies and people who can provide them. In the wake of a large-scale disaster, the site was optimized for mobile devices, which was the only way many survivors had to access the web. As the needs of storm victims evolve away from basics--Joplin has more donated water, food and clothing than it has places to store it--the site's mission continues to adapt to meet more challenging needs.

"Here we are today with much more complicated needs," Mark says. "Once you have a place to live and have clothes and some food, where do you go from there? We're having to adjust what we do a bit, while staying on mission. Now the needs are really complicated, sophisticated needs, and we're trying to adapt to that. It's really easy for people to hand someone a canned good--and it feels good--but what do you do when somebody needs help with tax preparation information that relates to your FEMA application? It's a different skill set and we're having to adjust and adapt."

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