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‘Every house…gets us closer’

By Teresa K. Weaver


One of the 7,700 Joplin homes destroyed by a May 22, 2011, tornado.
©Habitat for Humanity/ Ezra Millstein


Habitat homeowner Thomas Short looks out over empty lots where houses stood before the storm. ©Habitat for Humanity/ Ezra Millstein


Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity will build between 55 and 60 houses this year. Before the storm, it built 3 to 5 houses each year.
©Habitat for Humanity/ Ezra Millstein


Tornadoes are a rite of spring in southwest Missouri, but the warnings on the late afternoon of May 22, 2011, seemed a little more intense, a little more urgent.

“They were saying on TV it was going to be really, really bad,” recalled Thomas Short, a Federal Express driver who has lived in Joplin his entire life. “But we kept thinking, ‘This is Joplin. It always misses us!’ ”

Not this time.

This city of 49,000 took a direct hit from an EF-5 tornado. Winds up to 200 mph cut a mile-wide swath through the main retail district and affluent and working-class neighborhoods alike.

The storm killed more than 160 people and destroyed more than 7,700 homes. A year later, many people are still living in temporary accommodations or damaged shelters.

The aftermath
Scott Clayton, executive director at Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity, surveyed the broken landscape from a hillside on Kentucky Avenue where 10 Habitat houses have been built.

“You almost lose your bearings,” he said quietly. “Landmarks that let you know where you were — that certain street sign or that certain house — they’re all gone.

“You’re constantly reminded of the tornado by all the debarked trees and the houses that still need to be torn down,” he added. “But every day is getting toward something that we know is going to be better. Every house that Habitat builds — along with all the other great organizations that are here working — gets us closer. Every day.”

‘Before the tornado’ vs. ‘After the tornado’
Before last spring’s tornado, Joplin Area Habitat typically built three to five houses a year. This year, the affiliate is on a fast track to build 55 to 60 homes. Business at the ReStore has doubled, Clayton said.

“Here in Joplin, there are two different worlds,” said Clayton, 37. “There’s ‘before tornado’ and ‘after tornado.’ Obviously, after the tornado, the level of need is incredible.”

Joplin Area Habitat partnered with Tulsa Habitat and the city of Joplin to construct 10 houses in a two-week blitz build in October 2011. They then teamed up with several local churches for builds this spring.

Through the Governor’s Challenge, Joplin Area Habitat and Missouri’s major athletic organizations — from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Kansas Speedway — will build 35 houses. The Governor’s Challenge is an initiative launched this year with Community Development Block Grant money,

Determined hearts and endless possiblities
A steady stream of volunteers keeps Habitat build sites humming. On one recent weekend, build crews included volunteers from Hosanna Industries, a nonprofit housing organization based in Rochester, Pennsylvania; and students from Massachusetts, Texas and Iowa.

“The outpouring of giving hearts from here and from around the country is hard to put into words,” Clayton said. “And the heart and determination of those who were affected by the tornado has been astounding.

“You see what’s happened here, and your heart breaks for those families that lost loved ones or lost all their possessions. But what you see following that is the heart and determination: ‘This is what happened, but this is where we’re going. We have a house now that we didn’t have before. This is what we’re focusing on.’ ”

All around the Habitat houses going up on Kentucky Avenue are empty slabs and cleared lots, in a landscape nearly devoid of trees. Outsiders might still see damage, but most people here — like Clayton — see tremendous progress and endless possibilities.

“You can see hope here,” he said.

Return to the series home page:
‘You can see hope here’: One year after the 2011 tornadoes


‘Now I want to help somebody else’

Anita Stokes had made the last mortgage payment on her house two weeks before the tornado destroyed it.

Tornadoes and flooding in the central U.S.
Our local Habitat affiliates are leading the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Learn more about this disaster recovery and how you can help.