Year since Joplin tornado marked by hope, struggle

By Alan Scher Zagier

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 20 2012 3:41 p.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.

"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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