Joplin Residents Still Displaced, Struggle to Heal, Two Years Post Tornado

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JOPLIN - Joplin officials estimate more than 300 families remain displaced from the EF-5 tornado that ripped through the town with little warning, claiming 161 lives and destroying 8,000 buildings on May 22, 2011--exactly two years ago Wednesday and precisely two days since another EF-5 tornado demolished much of Moore, Ok. in an eerily-familiar manner.

"We get calls every week. We are still getting calls," said Doreen Finnie, executive director of Rebuild Joplin--an organization reliant on government grant money to help uninsured or under-insured residents repair or rebuild their storm-ravaged homes for little or no cost. She said several families still live in FEMA trailers, unable to get help.

"We've built to date 64 homes, and we estimate there's at least another 100 out there that need to finish the rebuilding process. They oftentimes don't know what the resources are, [or] they were turned down by one agency not realizing that other agencies have different criteria. Oftentimes, when they get a no, they've been through so much they don't have the energy to go on," Finnie said.  Rebuild Joplin executive director Jerrod Hogan said though 100 Rebuild Joplin clients are in need of rebuilding, he estimates at least 350 Joplin families still are displaced.  He said he presumes some of those families have moved away from Joplin or have not reported their current living accommodations.

According to organization employees and volunteers, Rebuild Joplin does not start the rebuilding process of any home until the organization has the funds to complete the home--funds that primarily are gathered through a combination of grant money from sponsors and the federal government. Finnie estimated the organization needs at least another $500,000 in order to build the remaining requested homes--homes that usually are rebuilt on their original lots or donated lots and are built to a size most appropriate for accommodating each family's particular needs.

Hogan told KOMU 8 News Wednesday Rebuild Joplin clients must contribute toward their new homes whatever amount they can afford--a number determined by Disaster Case Management, which looks into each prospective client's financial and insurance history. 

This past year, Rebuild Joplin helped resident David Durall completely rebuild his pulverized home on Annie Baxter Road using only his $22,00 FEMA settlement. Reflecting on the immediate aftermath of the day the tornado struck, Durall said, "The neighborhood was just gone.  The first thing I thought of was it was just like a warzone.  It was devastating. I've been through two tornadoes before that one and nothing like that... My grandson plays with a little boy that lived over here on Empire.  His mom was holding him in her arms, and she lost her life holding him. They were thrown across the street."

Durall's account of his and his neighborhood's life-altering experiences that day are a testament to the community's quest for not only structural rebuilding, but also for emotional healing.  

Longtime Joplin minister Randy Gariss, one of the town's most revered religious leaders, said, "Rebuilding comes out of the fact that I have neighbors in a community that I want to live in, and these people care about me, and I care about them, and now that our stuff found its proper balance in our life, it's important, but it's secondary.  So we are a community that went through a values change.  People matter.  Stuff--less so."

Joplin resident Cody Adkins, a Joplin High School senior, echoed Gariss's claim.  He said, "[Prior to the tornado], kids were all involved with their phones and stuff.  'Oh, I got a new phone, I got a new phone.'  And now, they're saying, 'I got a new friend, I got a new friend.'  And I think that's beautiful.  I think that's beautiful."

"If I were to erect a statute of some kind to this thing," Gariss said, "It would be something to the effect of a memorial to the value of having friends.  If you live in a community [in which] people are about you, and you know your neighbors, and your neighbors love you, you're a rich person...so we have a better Joplin not because the houses are newer after a tornado but because the homes are better connected to the homes next door to them." 

The theme for this year's anniversary is "Resilience, Resolve and Realization"--characteristics officials attribute to the community's efforts to pull together and help one other heal in the two years since the tornado.  Joplin officials encourage members of the community to turn out at Cunningham Park from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday for a series of remembrances and presentations centered around that theme.  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to speak briefly during the event before heading to Moore, Ok.  A moment of silence will be observed at 5:41 p.m., the time at which the tornado touched down in Joplin on May 22, 2011.

Thursday morning, Rebuild Joplin officials said members of the organization will head to Moore, Ok. to provide assistance and guidance to relief crews and residents in the town. Finnie and Hogan explained Rebuild Joplin has partnered with post-Hurricane Katrina-founded St. Bernard Project to create a disaster recovery lab, a guide that will be used to provide recovery expertise to tornado-damaged cities like Moore.

KOMU 8 News anchor Jim Riek and former KOMU 8 News meteorologist Michelle Bogowith have spearheaded and produced a book titled Joplin: Our Words, Our Stories, Their Hope, written by former KOMU 8 News reporters who detail their first-hand experiences covering the aftermath of the Joplin tornado.  Starting Wednesday, it is available on Amazon.com for $12.99, and all proceeds go directly to Rebuild Joplin.

Please tune in to KOMU 8 News at noon, 5, 6, 9 and 10 for continued coverage and special stories centered around the second anniversary of the Joplin tornado.

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