By Ryan Richardson
DUQUESNE, Mo. —
Denny White didn’t expect either his business or his community to get back on their feet so quickly.
Before the storm, White’s view from Denny’s Auto Sales, near 20th Street and Duquesne Road, included a western horizon populated with businesses, homes and a treeline, over which he could see the top of St. John’s Regional Medical Center miles away.
May 22, 2011, changed all of that.
“All that was left is the concrete floor,” White said of his used car dealership. He pointed to areas where parts of the floor had been lifted up by the tornado.
“We rebuilt the same structure right on top of it, but it feels different. That wind blows so hard now and the view has definitely changed,” White said.
As he spoke, a strong wind blew through the open doors to his dealership, blowing across fields where he can see the rising skeletal frames of wooden structures that will soon become new businesses and homes. Those frames mark the last phase of the rebuilding process in Duquesne from the tornado, said White, who is the mayor of Duquesne.
“We lost nearly 250 homes and a lot of businesses that day,” White said. “I say ‘lost,’ but that’s not entirely true. They were destroyed, and now most of them have come back in addition to new businesses.”
White estimates 55 businesses, along with his, were destroyed that night. Forty-two of those have been rebuilt, as well as 150 homes.
White said $7 million from the Workforce Investment Board played a key role in Duquesne’s recovery. The money put nearly 150 workers on the ground during the past 17 months. Their duties are expected to wrap up in December.
“We’re almost there with about 98 percent of the town cleaned up,” White said. “These are tough people. They’re strong. We had to slow people down right after because of how energetic they were to rebuild.”
Larry Clark is one of the tough people White is talking about.
Clark’s home on 20th Street was one of the homes lost in the devastation. Clark and his wife, Cathy, had finished remodeling their home in late 2010 and she was expanding her business as a seamstress before the tornado took their home.
“The home was still standing, but it would have cost too much to rebuild,” she said. “We scavenged what we could out of there and decided what we wanted to do.”
For Larry Clark, the choice was simple. This was his family’s property.
“We weren’t leaving,” he said. “This is my family’s land. Tornadoes happen and houses can be lost, but it can’t take this land away from us.”
Within six weeks, the Clarks started construction on their new home. The family moved back in last November after living on the property in a borrowed trailer.
“We were quick to come back, like a lot of our neighbors,” Cathy Clark said. “People have lived their lives here. This our home.”
Growth is evident
In the wake of the disaster, Duquense’s code enforcement officer and building inspector Ken Ansley found that his part-time job turned into much more than he ever expected.
“I averaged about three inspections a month and maybe one permit before everything happened,” Ansley said. He is a full-time minister at Christ’s Church of Oronogo in addition to his duties in Duquesne. With the two jobs, he said he averages 90 hours a week.
“This is an above-and-beyond, full-time job now,” Ansley said. “It is important to be here and a part of this now. It was phenomenal to see the council and the experience of everyone bring us to where we are now. But just watch — we’re going to have a second growth boom here. We rebuilt with a resurgence, and you’ll see more businesses coming here.”
That growth is already evident. Not only have most of the businesses rebuilt, but others have moved into the area.
Lamar business owner Brian Schnelle decided to open a new location in Duquesne for his two businesses, Schnelle Sheet Metal and Schnelle Home and Hearth. He will specialize in custom fireplaces in addition to his sheet-metal business.
“This is where I wanted my business to go,” Schnelle said. “There is a need for us here and it is a place we look forward to serving.”
Tim Blanchard was on site last week, overseeing the construction of what will eventually be Schnelle’s place of business. Blanchard said that his own enterprise, Blanchard Construction, has been working nearly non-stop since the tornado, but this is his first construction job in Duquesne.
“Our crew talked about what was going on out here afterwards,” Blanchard said. “Every day when you drive through here, you see something new. It will never be the same as it was, but it will be new and it will be strong.”
Near his bulldozer lay a pile of broken studs that had blown off the roof during a storm earlier in the week. Because of the lack of trees and structures, high winds can wreak havoc at job sites.
“Weather is still an issue almost two years afterward,” Blanchard said. “You don’t see debris everywhere, but there are still signs that things aren’t right around here. These winds just rip right through here without anything to block them.”
White agrees with that assessment.
“Most of the houses are back up and the businesses are coming back, and it was more than I thought that I’d see possible this soon,” White said. “But you can’t replace all of the trees that were taken. That will always be the reminder for everyone here. There will be generations gone before that starts to fade away.”