By Debby Woodin
JOPLIN, Mo. —
A deadly May twister may have punched a hole in Joplin and Duquesne two years ago, but the resolve to repair it will help other communities stand strong when they face similar disasters.
That was the message of state and national dignitaries to a crowd of about 2,500 who observed the second anniversary of Joplin’s devastating May 22, 2011, storm during a ceremony Wednesday in Cunningham Park.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, remembers the devastation and Joplin’s response. Debris a mile wide from 7,500 destroyed residences and more than 500 businesses was cleared in 90 days. Temporary schools to replace those destroyed were put in place for an on-time start that August.
“I remember very well coming here after the tornado hit, and it is astounding how far Joplin has come,” not only building back, but building back better, Napolitano said.
Schools are being rebuilt or remodeled and equipped with community storm shelters so people will have a safe refuge from future storms. A new Mercy Hospital under construction is outfitted in crucial areas with glass windows that can withstand boards hitting them in 250 mph winds. The City Council adopted stricter home construction requirements aimed at making structures stronger against high winds.
Napolitano said she wanted to find a way to recognize those accomplishments of the community as a whole. At the ceremony, she bestowed upon the residents of Joplin and Jane Cage the first Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience. Cage was recognized for her leadership of the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team, which assembled ideas from the community and city leaders for rebuilding and making a new Joplin with more amenities to advance the quality of life.
“Jane, you and the Joplin community are serving as models for communities across the United States,” the secretary said in presenting a plaque and medal to Cage.
“I think this is really wonderful for the recognition of the work that was done, not just by me, but by everybody,” Cage said.
Both Napolitano and Gov. Jay Nixon said Joplin’s experience will serve as a beacon of recovery.
“Joplin is many things, and right now I believe you are a beacon of hope — a sign that in times of great need, we are not alone; a sign that wounds do heal, though sometimes they still hurt; that life changes, but it goes on,” the governor said. “And as it does, the power of hope lifts our hearts and compels us forward.”
Announcements of two grants that will continue to propel Joplin’s recovery were made at the ceremony.
Matt Erskine, deputy assistant secretary for the federal Economic Development Administration, announced a $20 million grant for the redevelopment of 20th Street, in particular the building of a new Joplin Public Library and movie theater complex at 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue inside the tornado zone.
Erskine said the hope is that the project will be so successful that it will serve as a template for recovery for other cities.
“The nation will look to Joplin as a model for resilience and recovery” as the city’s economic development projects become realities, he said.
After that announcement, David Wallace, chief executive officer of Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, Joplin’s contracted master developer, said the grant will allow the planners to go forward with design and constructions plans for the library project. He said construction likely will start in about six months. The library project is part of a $100 million development that will build a mix of stores, restaurants and loft apartments next to the library, along with a grocery store.
“We are grateful for this grant as it spurs additional redevelopment activities within Joplin and demonstrates what can be accomplished through collaboration among many,” said Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean.
Additionally, Joplin will share a grant of $585,000 with New York to build an Open Spaces, Sacred Places garden for recovery and healing.
Tracy Sooter, associate director of the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University in Springfield, announced the grant award.
City Manager Mark Rohr said the garden, funded by the TKF Foundation, will be a place where Joplin’s tornado experience can be learned and reflected upon. It will be located at the northeast corner of Cunningham Park, where three houses were destroyed by the storm. The city bought the lots after the tornado.
“Joplin has a story to tell,” Rohr said. “It’s not just the story of the tornado, but the heroic acts our citizens and their neighbors took to help themselves and, more importantly, each other.”
The ceremony culminated with the placement of a wreath of white daisies and purple irises — Joplin’s city flower — at the stone monument in the park dedicated to the 161 people who died as a result of the tornado.
Rohr opened the ceremony with a tribute to those lost, who are represented in the park by 161 trees.
“Their memories are forever entrenched in our hearts,” he said.
‘Light of Joplin’
“THE PEOPLE OF OKLAHOMA will experience the embrace of an entire nation — an entire world — because when disaster strikes, we’re all in this together,” Gov. Jay Nixon said during Wednesday’s ceremony. “And then little by little, day by day, the people of Moore will begin to rebuild. Schools will open. Trees will be planted, and homes will return. It is a long and daunting path. But the light of Joplin, and the hope you instill in people, can help illuminate the way.”