Tornado still takes heavy toll on Joplin, six months later
JOPLIN, Mo (Reuters) – New houses, stores and office buildings are popping up from a tornado’s ruins, but Rachael Lasley can only see the emptiness.
“I’ve lived my whole life here and it’s not like Joplin anymore,” Lasley, 36, said as she shielded her face from a cold wind whipping around a trailer park that is her temporary home. “My childhood memories are gone — my elementary school, the playground, restaurants.”
Joplin, Missouri on Tuesday observes the sixth-month anniversary of the EF-5 tornado May 22 that killed 161 people and destroyed some 900 buildings. The city is sponsoring a memorial service to honor victims and thank hundreds of volunteers who helped clean up the city.
While many in Joplin strike an upbeat tone about recovery, people who lost homes and loved ones still struggle mightily with their emotions and the upheaval in their lives.
Thousands of residents take part in state-sponsored counseling programs, including about one-third of the 7,700 public school students, officials said.
Stresses caused by the tornado, such as cramped or shared living space and financial hardships, have contributed to a 30 percent jump in cases of domestic violence and child abuse since the tornado, compared to a year ago, social service agencies report.
The mental health community is reaching out with billboards that read “Don’t Let One Disaster Lead to Another.”
Many families have moved multiple times since the tornado.
Christina Lackey, her husband and two small children stayed in a relative’s living room, then a hotel and now rent a house outside town while their house is rebuilt. But they worry that ongoing construction delays will prevent them from moving before insurance stops covering their rent in March.
“It’s real frustrating because it’s going to take so long to get our lives put back together,” Lackey said.
She said their 3 1/2 year old daughter still has scary memories of the tornado. On the 4th of July, for instance, fireworks “freaked her out,” Lackey said.
Lisa Orem, director of special services for Joplin schools, said even children who did not lose a home in the tornado are shaken by the loss of places they knew so well.
Dannielle Robertson copes with the loss of her home and her mother, Vicki Robertson, 66, who died when the tornado slammed into her duplex. Robertson lives in what residents call “FEMAville,” a barracks-like modular home park in a flat, open space in the northern part of Joplin. Homes were built by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The park has been the scene of several meth lab busts and violent crimes, Robertson said. She is trying to move but rental property is scarce and rent is rising out of the price range of a lot of people, she said.
Only recently, Robertson said, has she been able to drive through once-familiar parts of Joplin without crying. “To see those vast miles of empty space, it’s so sad,” she said.
Even new buildings are reminders of that awful day. Michael Madl lost a friend, Charlie Gaudsmith, 21, when the tornado tore through Wal-Mart while he was shopping. The new Wal-Mart opened earlier this month.
“I’d like to go there, but emotionally I don’t think I could,” Robertson said. He has found strength since the tornado by volunteering much of his time helping pack donated supplies for victims.
One of the most wrenching deaths that day occurred when the tornado pulled 18-year-old Will Norton out of the sunroof of his destroyed SUV two blocks from his home. His father, Mark Norton, was in the passenger seat but survived.
The Nortons were returning from high school graduation ceremonies when the tornado hit. Will Norton is talked about often, said a friend, Emma Cox. He was a popular kid, but never into cliques, she said.
“He had a Halloween party and invited everybody,” Cox said.
Mark Norton said he has taken solace in the kind things people have said about Will, including one woman who said her introverted son decided to be more outgoing and involved in his first year of college because of Will’s death.
“He realized life can be short and you can’t waste years,” Norton said.
The memorial service Tuesday is planned in Cunningham Park, where 161 trees will eventually be planted in memory of each tornado victim. Relatives of all victims have been invited to the service.
Robertson said the tree for each victim will be a symbol of renewal.
“It’s part of the rebuilding of Joplin,” she said. “A tree will be standing. That’s important.”
(Writing and reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)
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