For Joplin tornado victims, Question No. 1 is 'Do we stay?'

McClatchy NewspapersMay 28, 2011 

JOPLIN, Mo. — A week ago, although it seems an eternity now, life was good for Tim Kent and his family.

That was a little before 6 p.m. Sunday, May 22, when he and his wife, Jan, were hauling groceries from their car, and the sky turned black, and a rumbling locomotive sound grew in the air, and their neighbor, Jim Eason, ran out to the top of his lawn and screamed:

"There is rotation above your house!"

The Kents dropped their groceries. They bolted into their home and shouted for their two teen-age daughters to run. Alexandra, 19, a student at the University of Missouri, grabbed the family's pet rabbit. They hit the basement just before the house they had lived in for 19 years heaved, splintered and burst into a heap of debris.

As close as any, their home was at ground zero for one of the worst tornadoes on record, an EF5 with 200 mph winds that took at least 132 lives, and more than 8,000 houses, apartments and businesses.

When the Kents emerged and looked at the devastation around them — some houses obliterated, others sheared in half — Tim Kent, 52 and an environmental engineer, knew that from that moment on "everything is different."

"It is like 9/11. There will be life before the tornado. And there will be life after the tornado," he said.

What comes next? Where will Joplin be a month from now? Where can it be in a few years?

Within hours of the disaster, even as ambulances still wailed through the night, city officials stood inside the justice center at a press conference and emphasized a message that would be repeated often: This city will rise from its knees.

American flags began to rise from the wreckage out of pride and resolve. Joplin's school superintendent declared that, even with four schools flattened or deemed a total loss, classes would begin on time in August.

"We will overcome this hardship," said City Manager Mark Rohr. "We will rebuild this city," Gov. Jay Nixon vowed, voicing rhetoric once heard in places like New Orleans and New York.

Few argue the importance of the message.

"It helps," said Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services for the Ozark Center, the mental health arm of Freeman Health Systems, a group of three hospitals in Joplin that, within 24 hours of the tornado, saw its mental health crisis calls jump from 500 a month to nearly 100 a day.

But the experiences of other tornado-ravaged towns speak to the hard work that lies ahead. Rubble will be cleared. Homes will be rebuilt. The economy will be spurred. Communities and neighbors will bond tighter by shared experience.

People also will pick up and move. With homes bulldozed, vacant lots will dot neighborhoods. The address "FEMAville" — for the thousands of displaced residents who will call Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers home for months to years — will become part of the local language.

In Greensburg, Kan., which was virtually wiped from the map by a tornado on May 4, 2007, fully half the population of 1,500 did not return.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., where an April 27 twister killed 41 people and destroyed or damaged 7,500 buildings, rubble still stretches for acre upon acre. Chainsaws still work to clear roads and yards. Thousands wait on insurance settlements and bank loans. People remain out of work.

No one knows yet how many Tuscaloosans will stay and rebuild and how many will just move on.

Only days removed from the Joplin tornado, Kent and his neighbors say they're still in shock.

Countless questions swirl in their minds, but one stands out.

"The question is 'Do I even want to live here anymore?'." said Ed McAllister, whose home was leveled. The family's car lay flipped upside down on top of the mound that was his house.

It's where he and Sheri, 47, raised Megan, 19, Lydia, 17, and Luke, 14. It's where their memories live: birthdays, Christmases. They celebrated Ed's 50th birthday with 50 people last week.

And yet he doesn't know. "Do I want to rebuild here?" he asks.

Jud and Cindy Fischer, both 52, say they'll rebuild their home of 18 years, now just a mound of wreckage. "I think 90 percent of them will stay," Fischer said of his neighbors. He's staying because of family and his job.

Kent is less optimistic. "Maybe 50 percent," he guessed.

It's too early to tell how many will build lives anew in Tuscaloosa.

"We've dried our tears. We've buried our dead," said Terry Waters, a former utility executive and interim executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. "That doesn't mean we're anywhere back to where we need to be. Not close...This is a marathon."

Help has proved both overwhelming and uneven.

More than 14,000 volunteers came to town. Thousands of truckloads of clothes, lumber, diapers and other supplies have come from around the world. A disaster relief fund of $1.2 million at www.GiveTuscaloosa.com grows. The number of Red Cross and Salvation Army trucks continues to make the city look like the host of a national do-gooder convention.

Last week, FEMA, which OK'd more than $11.4 million in grants for temporary housing, repairs and loans for uninsured property losses, promised trailers for temporary housing. Yet many homeless residents have already received FEMA "determination letters" saying they didn't qualify. More stand in limbo waiting to hear.

Indeed, finding housing has become a trial for many families.

"Look at this," said Niki Eberhart, a waitress whose husband buses tables and whose home was demolished in the tornado. "They want $1,200 for this place; $700 for something that 'needs work.' Are they crazy?"

Heading into this weekend, her family, with two children, a friend and a dog, appeared to have a place for $525 a month, more expensive and smaller than the place they had before. But it was a home.

Businesses, too, are slowly coming back. Ten days after the storm, Renay LaFoy and her mother, Gilda Wells, reopened Gilda's spa and beauty salon in a new, albeit cramped, storefront.

Because LaFoy shut down Gilda's and sent everyone scurrying home as soon as television weather radar began blazing red, no one was there when the big one hit. Wind ripped the roof from the walls. It sucked a glass door and shelves to the back of the cinderblock building.

Wells' plan is to rebuild a 5,000-square-foot salon. But even if her insurance comes through soon, she knows the project won't. Contractors are backed up. Besides, Tuscaloosa has imposed a construction moratorium in the hardest hit parts of town, pending new building codes, a thorny issue. Too strict means costs will rise and slow construction. Too lax, and another storm could blow the city apart again.

Some 300 miles to the west of Joplin in Greensburg, Kan., images of Sunday's wreckage stirred flashbacks.

Inside the town's new school complex — futuristic in design, with sunshine pouring in — recent TV reports predicting more tornadoes cast a shadow. They'd seen it before, in May 2007 when a tornado swallowed their little town whole.

Greensburg then looked just like Joplin now.

Eating lunch with his classmates, Rhylan Tedder, 10, looked into Joplin's future: "They'll meet a lot of people."

Oh yes, Greensburg can attest, survivors of Joplin and Tuscaloosa will meet people.

They'll meet government people demanding documents lost, of course, in the storms. Driver's licenses, birth certificates, car titles and receipts.

They'll greet volunteers bearing household supplies for families doubling up or gutting it out, through a year or two, in FEMA trailers.

No doubt they'll meet shifty contractors who skip town or go bankrupt, forcing residents to pay for delivered supplies they thought were covered. Some who stayed in Greensburg poured $300,000 into new homes that may never sell for half that.

And if this south-central Kansas town of conspicuously young trees provides other lessons, this month's survivors will not see certain folks — like many of their old neighbors.

Renters go immediately. Dozens of Greensburg's elderly also left, joining offspring who moved to bigger places decades ago. The town had about 1,500 residents in 2000. The post-disaster population is about 780.

Still, given total destruction, Greensburg serves as a model of forward-thinking resolve.

Like other rural communities, Greensburg was fast losing young people even before the sky fell.

"If you just rebuilt it the way it was, nothing would change that destiny so many shrinking towns face," said school Superintendent Darin Headrick.

Starting from scratch, the town adopted an identity of clean-Earth sustainability. Grants flowed in from environmental and architectural groups eager to underwrite Greensburg's bid to be a test tube for green design.

National acclaim, donations and federal funds gave rise to new public buildings: A $30 million hospital (about $2 million per bed) sporting angled exterior walls. A funky high school that uses 55 percent less water than the destroyed one; hallway lights flicker on when they sense a human below.

Towering wind turbines whir. The town even boasts a glass shoebox of a gallery designed by University of Kansas architecture students, managed by a nonprofit and called the 5-4-7 Arts Center — its name tied to the date of the tornado.

All well and good, residents say.

But many note a hard reality that belies the awards and media attention.

"Every six months, the outside public sees some update that shows us making progress. What they don't see is this everyday grind...It's hard," said Scott Reineke, who runs a glass-art shop, Studio 54:

For several months after the disaster, those who stayed hashed out a vision, if not one that everyone shared. Hundreds would converge under a tent in Davis Park for City Council meetings.

A sign on Greensburg's eastern limit brags, "Stronger. Better. Greener." But for many, the jury remains out on "Better."

Several dead oaks - tops missing and trunks sheared of bark - remain on private land yet to be developed, telling visitors something ferocious happened here.

A good, cool shade may not return this decade.

"People miss the trees the most," said Stacy Barnes, who runs 5-4-7 Arts Center and grew up when Greensburg was leafy.

(Adler reported from Joplin, Mo., Canon, from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Montgomery, from Greensburg, Kan. All three report for the Kansas City Star.)

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