By Kelsey Ryan
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Joplin’s tornado recovery efforts once again received high praise Thursday, this time from two visiting presidential Cabinet members.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Rich Serino, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, visited Joplin school and city officials Thursday to get an update on recovery efforts in the wake of the May 22 tornado.
The three met with community members and students, visited tornado-affected areas including the site of the old Joplin High School, and toured the 11th- and 12th-grade center that was converted from a big-box store at Northpark Mall .
Napolitano, at a press conference outside the Joplin School District’s administrative offices on 32nd Street, said Joplin will be a model for other cities facing disaster, with a combination of community officials making rebuilding plans within 72 hours of the storm and a spirit of community engagement. She had previously been in Joplin in the wake of the tornado.
“The spirit and can-do attitude of this community is really unsurpassed,” Napolitano said. “I’ve been in a number of communities, this past year especially, and I will say Joplin certainly has something special going for it.”
The secretary also said a lot could be learned from the community in other areas, like communication immediately following the tornado.
She said Joplin’s rebuild is moving rapidly, but did note concerns with the balance in the federal Disaster Relief Fund, saying it was at an all-time low.
“Right now, quite frankly, we’re running on fumes,” Napolitano said. “We’ve had a lot of disasters this year, a lot drawn out on the fund. We have asked for supplemental funding.”
She said officials have prioritized individual assistance and that assistance will be paid. She said she is urging Congress to reach a speedy resolution.
In Washington, a threat of government shutdown continued after the House voted down legislation over a must-pass measure for billions of dollars in disaster relief on Wednesday. The legislation contained more than $3.7 billion in disaster aid and would keep the government running until mid-November.
This was Duncan’s first visit to Joplin. He, too, had praise for the school district in its recovery efforts, saying that Joplin schools can help lead the nation where it needs to go educationally.
“This is a community that cares deeply about its children, and that is evidenced in everything that I’ve seen and heard,” he said.
Duncan said he wants the department to support Joplin schools and help in the recovery efforts “for the long haul.”
“You’ve taken a tragedy and taken the education system to an entirely different level,” he said.
Members of the Joplin School Board met with the secretaries during their visit. Ashley Micklethwaite, school board president, said the conversations with the secretaries focused on what has gone well in the rebuilding effort so far and what have been the challenges.
“I think they’re looking at learning from this disaster and helping other communities move forward, because unfortunately it will happen to them; but hopefully not to this extent,” she said.
For her, the highlight of the visit was hearing the affirmation of the district’s efforts.
“It’s pretty amazing when the secretary of education is so proud of our community and our schools, and what we’ve accomplished,” Micklethwaite said.
Brad White, a JHS senior who met Duncan, asked if he had played basketball with President Barack Obama, and he said he had.
“We didn’t really get to talk to them a lot,” White said, “but it was neat to shake their hands and see that they really care about us.”
Students said having the federal officials visit and showing their support meant a lot.
“Instead of just being one town and one state, we’re really one state, one nation,” said Quentin Anderson, a JHS senior. “We’re all the same, and it means a lot to know there’s help on every single level in the country. It really proves we’re an amazing country.”
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
Duncan spoke about President Obama’s stance on the No Child Left Behind Act. He stressed the urgency of education reform, specifically the No Child Left Behind Act.
“The president and I just think current law is fundamentally broken,” he said. “It’s far too punitive; many, many ways to fail. The only reward for success is if you’re not labeled a failure. What we want to do is really empower great local educators like you have here to take student achievement to the next level.”
He said the federal government is going to look at ways to partner with individual states, continue high standards but give teachers the room for flexibility and innovation in the classroom. Duncan also stressed the importance of physical education and the arts in public schools.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.