Year since Joplin tornado marked by hope, struggle

By Alan Scher Zagier

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 8, 2012, the ruins of the former St. John's Regional Medical center stands in Joplin, Mo. Destroyed by an EF-5 tornado nearly a year ago, the hospital is in its third temporary facility while construction continues on a new replacement a couple miles to the south.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

JOPLIN, Mo. — One year after the deadliest tornado in decades hit southwest Missouri, the images remain indelible.

A bombed-out hospital, its top floors reduced to grotesquely twisted metal. The smiling face of a newly minted high school graduate, a YouTube sensation in both life and death. Thousands of flattened homes and businesses, 161 dead and hordes of volunteers from across the country who arrived to help within hours of the May 22, 2011 twister that packed winds of more than 200 mph.

The rebuilding effort is readily apparent in Joplin, where new homes dot the pocked landscape and big-box businesses quickly rebuilt along the city's main commercial strip. For community members putting back the pieces of their lives, homes, jobs and families the recovery is far slower.

"We miss him so bad," said Mark Norton, whose 18-year-old son Will died while driving home from Joplin High School's graduation, his father beside him in the passenger seat. "People say, 'You'll get over it.' But we never will."

A teen pilot, world traveler, tennis player and budding filmmaker, Will Norton's legacy lives on among Facebook tributes, a YouTube channel with 2.65 million views and a Twitter page left untouched since his death ("I'm graduating today!" his final tweet reads).

Tributes to Norton can be found throughout Joplin, a city of 50,000 but a regional hub near the borders of Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma whose work-day population swells to roughly 240,000.

A playground slide at the rebuilt Cunningham Park, across the street from what remains of the nine-story St. John's Regional Medical Center, bears the name of Willdabeast Way, a nod to Will Norton's nickname.

A new children's trauma center owned by Joplin's other hospital, which was mostly undamaged by the EF-5 twister, is now known as Will's Place. Plans are in place to build a Will Norton Memorial Miracle Field for baseball-playing children with special needs.

Across the country, Chapman University in southern California created a presidential scholarship in Norton's name, though the incoming freshman never made it to campus.

"We felt so blessed," Mark Norton said. "He was just such a special man in our lives. And then to be taken from us, on the day of his graduation. Those things aren't supposed to happen."

Mark Norton continues to recover from his own substantial injuries, a steel rod in his leg and a scar on his clean-shaven scalp are reminders of his own near-brush with death. He had 17 broken bones, a collapsed lung, a dislocated shoulder from trying to pull his son back into the car and vague memories of his son praying aloud as the tornado approached.

Norton, his wife Trish and their daughter Sara, Will's older sister, plan to quietly acknowledge the upcoming anniversary at a church service. They've been invited as special guests at Joplin High's Monday graduation, with President Obama as the commencement speaker, but Mark Norton said the family doesn't want to be a distraction for a senior class whose final year was marked by untold adversity.

"That's their great time. They don't need a couple of grieving parents on the front row, reminding them of (the tornado)," he said.

Remember, but move on.

That's the approach many in Joplin embrace. And one look at the city's skyline is all it takes to remember, even if you'd prefer to forget.

There will be no implosion of the former St. John's Regional Medical Center, no quick demolition of a structure built atop the lead mine shafts that once defined the city. Instead, the destroyed hospital lingers as its incremental removal continues, a constant reminder of what took place. The flattened neighborhoods and sheared trees surrounding St. John's, where at least nine people died, make it that much more visible for miles around.

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