Year since Joplin tornado marked by hope, struggle

By Alan Scher Zagier

Associated Press

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

"It's hard to look at," said Dr. Jim Riscoe, an emergency room physician who coordinated the tornado triage center at a downtown Joplin civic auditorium after his hospital was hit. "Having to look at the hospital in this (condition) every day is such a downer."

A new, larger hospital east of town along Interstate 44 is taking a shape, though it won't open for another two or three years. It will be known as Mercy Hospital Joplin, incorporating the name of its owner, the Sisters of Mercy Health System, rather than keeping a name that is now synonymous with suffering.

In the meantime, Riscoe and his colleagues have had a series of temporary homes, starting with a short-term field hospital installed one week after the EF-5 tornado hit that consisted of mobile medical tents "over three months of the hottest summer here I can remember," Riscoe said. Then came a more secure modular unit, and, since mid-April, a two-story "component" hospital with 110 beds, a labor and delivery unit and other essentials that will be disassembled and likely sold at auction when the permanent hospital is complete.

Hope is even more apparent across the street at Cunningham Park, where the TV satellite trucks and emergency vehicles from one year ago have been replaced by a fenced-in basketball court with bleachers, new playground equipment, a rebuilt city swimming pool and water park and tributes to the tornado's 161 victims as well as the thousands of volunteers who descended on Joplin.

"This tribute embodies the volunteers' determination through four rippling garden walls, representing Joplin's ongoing rescue, recovery, demolition and rebirth," the display reads, "serving as a reminder of the overwhelming power of human generosity and the steadfast tenacity to rebuild the once broken city."

Suzanne Faulkner knew that life in a FEMA trailer north of Joplin with her adult son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren would pose some hardships. Still, she never expected the neighborhood ice-cream truck to sell carry-out methamphetamine along with freeze pops and sodas.

A series of drug busts of that dealer and several others found to have been using their Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers to cook meth cleaned up the neighborhood, according to Faulkner and her son, Darin Johnson. They still won't allow the children, ages 6, 7 and 10, to play outside, though.

"It's been hard here," Faulkner said. "I'm very thankful I have this place, but there's a lot to be desired."

The tornado destroyed the trailers both Faulkner and her son's family were living in one year ago, forcing her to briefly live in an emergency shelter before a local Good Samaritan temporarily took Faulkner in. The twister also destroyed her car, further complicating the divorced grandmother's recovery.

She moved into the government trailer at the Officer Jeff Taylor Memorial Acres housing complex — a name few if any residents use — eight months ago. The other two sites near the Joplin airport are known as Hope Haven Village and Hope Haven 2.

At its peak, FEMA provided temporary housing for nearly 600 tornado survivors spread across 15 sites in and around Joplin. That number was down to 376 through the end of April, with two-thirds of the displaced residents living near the airport, which is served by public transit and school buses but miles away from the city center.

The government agency reports providing roughly $21 million in grants to disaster victims in the two-county region for home repairs, temporary housing and other critical needs through its Individual and Households Program, to more than 10,700 applicants.

Faulkner, who works full-time at a customer service call center, hopes to soon move out of the FEMA village into a 1-bedroom apartment in nearby Carthage, which was not damaged by the tornado. The move is contingent on her car getting repaired.

Johnson, an Army veteran, said he and his wife Vicki also hope to soon relocate, but have been hampered by a shortage of affordable housing. Three-bedroom homes that once rented for $400 now cost double, he said.

"The biggest challenge has just been how to get a place," he said.

Johnson said that living through the tornado has made his young family resilient, and also appreciative of the kindness of strangers, including those church members who helped furnish their temporary home with beds, toys and other necessities and the unnamed volunteers who left bags of groceries on their porch.

"There's only so much FEMA and the Red Cross can do," he said. "There's a small-town mentality here, that you don't have to lean on the government, you can get help from your neighbor."

Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier

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