By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
JOPLIN, Mo. —
For 19 months, rows of nearly 600 units spread out among community and commercial sites were a visual reminder of the homes lost in Joplin on May 22, 2011.
One by one, contractors began disassembling and moving the trailers, a testament to their occupants having found places to live.
Today, contractors will prepare the last two — one occupied until Sunday by Mike and Paige Morris, and one occupied by their neighbors, Nikki and Jason Williams — for moving from a site along Fountain Road. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency then will close the site.
Contractors also will move another trailer, occupied by another individual, out of the Hope Haven site on Highway 171 across from the Joplin airport. The remaining occupants at other sites, including Officer Jeff Taylor Memorial Acres, moved out last week, according to Will Fiorini, FEMA’s direct housing group supervisor for Region 7.
FEMA officials had authorized the trailers to be vacated by November 2012 — 18 months from the date of the state’s disaster declaration. The city of Joplin requested an extension of that deadline to allow for additional construction and development of local housing resources, and the request was granted in mid-October.
Those remaining were given until Sunday, but they began paying rent in January.
“I’ve been involved with 20 direct housing sites of all different sizes, from 20 in Oregon to Hurricane Katrina,” Fiorini said. “I have to say, Joplin is what I would call a model for FEMA operation. It has less to do with FEMA individually but rather what the community has been able to do — partnerships where everyone came to the table. The community effort here has just been absolutely tremendous.”
Fiorini cited Joplin’s Long-Term Recovery Committee, the Economic Security Corp., Rebuild Joplin and Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity as examples of partners that have helped find housing solutions for the occupants of the trailers.
Some occupants, like longtime Joplin resident Flo Taylor, were success stories. She moved to the Officer Jeff Taylor Memorial Acres community site after losing both her Hampshire Terrace apartment and the Wal-Mart store in which she worked.
Last November, Taylor happily packed her things and moved out after her Habitat for Humanity home on Kentucky Avenue was complete.
Others, like the Morris family, faced more challenges.
Having lost their rental home and a borrowed vehicle when the storm hit 22nd Street and Jackson Avenue, they used the FEMA money they received to move to what they said was the only place they could find, a rental in Neosho, for as long as the money lasted. They moved to the trailer on Fountain Road almost 19 months ago.
“We’re appreciative,” Mike Morris said of their time in the trailer. “We couldn’t ask for anything more. We’re lucky it lasted as long as it did.”
The couple have been unable to find employment, they said, because of felony arrest records for drug use, and because they have no vehicle. “Finding a job has been impossible,” Mike Morris said.
He said it also has been hard to find a rental that they could afford. Paige Morris said Shelter Plus Care has helped them secure one in Joplin that will be available in about a week. Until then, she hopes to find a place to store their belongings, as well as a place for their pit bull, which can’t move with them.
“Once we get living in town where things are closer, I’ll hit the Career Center and start pounding the pavement,” Mike Morris said. “I’ll be able to get around easier and have easier access to the trolley system.”
He said he also has been undergoing weekly therapy at Ozark Center for post-traumatic stress disorder that he said was brought on from helping dig people, both living and dead, out of the rubble after the storm.
The couple’s three children remain under the care of the state until they turn their lives around, Mike Morris added, which he said is an incentive to try.
Paige Morris said because they are trying to turn their lives around, they are not willing to stay with the people they know in the area.
“Everyone we know, we’re trying to stay away from,” she said.
The Williamses, who had been living in a rental at 2112 S. Bird Ave., said the storm rendered the house unlivable. They have been living in a FEMA trailer at the Fountain Road site for about 19 months.
Nikki Williams said her arrest record and the couple’s lack of transportation have made it “almost impossible” to find a job.
Barb Sturner, an external affairs specialist for Region 7, said FEMA case managers worked closely with all the occupants to find solutions to their housing needs, something Paige Morris said she appreciated.
Nikki Williams said she and her husband plan to start living in a tent.
“We’ve been homeless before,” she said. “We’ll just try to start saving up whatever we can to find a place. I really just want to leave here. I want to move to Florida.”
FEMA officials will do a final inspection today, then a contractor will prepare the trailers to be moved to a staging area at Neosho, where officials will determine whether they should be reused or auctioned.
“It’s very respectable,” Fiorini said of the timeline in which Joplin occupants found housing. “Not a lot (of disaster areas) happen like this. This is a very large housing mission which required a lot of assets, a lot of coordination, so to get to where we are in two years is pretty commendable.”
Before the tornado, the acreage across Highway 171 from the airport was designated as a site on which the city would build a public safety training center. According to city spokeswoman Lynn Onstot, the city still plans to build one there, but she said the timeline for doing so is uncertain. The playgrounds from the sites will go into a park area in Joplin. The city of Joplin will donate one to the city of Duquesne.
WILL FIORINI, a housing supervisor with FEMA, said no decision has been made yet on what will happen to the safe rooms that were installed at all of the trailer parks. Mike Cappannari, a FEMA external affairs specialist who will be in Joplin today to assist with the closing of the parks, said the land near the airport where several mobile homes were situated will be returned to its original state and will be owned by the city of Joplin.