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5 Years After Devastating Missouri Tornado, Communities Assess Disaster Response

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Five years ago today, a massive tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Mo. The storm killed 161 people, making it the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since the year 1947. From member station KSMU, Scott Harvey brings us the latest on the recovery of the city and the people who live there.

SCOTT HARVEY, BYLINE: Meri Stewart was on the phone with her son, Nick, as the tornado's 200 mile-per-hour winds consumed her home on May 22, 2011. Stewart and her husband, William, sought shelter in the bathroom.

MERI STEWART: I lifted up my foot to get in the tub and that's when I heard the glass in my house just started breaking - the windows and everything. And I said to my son, Nick, the house is crumbling. He said, what do you mean it's crumbling?

HARVEY: At that point, the call cut out. Stewart huddled with her husband in the bathroom. The winds pushed them into the hallway. The walls and roof collapsed. The storm likely passed over Stewart's house in seconds. Nick found his way to his parents' about an hour later. Their dog, Ronnie, was missing.

STEWART: He said, Mom, I'll find her. And he found her in the house under some things.

HARVEY: Still alive.

STEWART: Still alive. She had a piece of wood sticking out of her side. And she was trembling. She was muddy. But she was still alive.

HARVEY: Stewart was one of 17,000 people affected by the storm. Her home one of 7,500 damaged or destroyed. Today, just a fraction of Joplin's six-mile path of destruction shows any sign of impact. Within that zone, almost 1,700 homes have been built since the tornado, including Stewart's. That's a rate of nearly one per day. And of the businesses impacted, 90 percent have been rebuilt.

A mile east of Stewart's new home is Cunningham Park. There is a memorial plaque that lists the tornado's victims and a butterfly garden.

PATRICK TUTTLE: Inside there we have some dioramas about the tornado and some statistics and things. It's probably the best place we can go to tell the story.

HARVEY: A few days ago, Patrick Tuttle with Joplin Convention & Visitors' Bureau led a tour of emergency management officials. They were in town for the city's Disaster Recovery Summit during which leaders from other tornado-stricken communities share lessons about their rebuilding efforts.

TUTTLE: And then this over here you see what Mercy - what St. John's looked like before and after.

HARVEY: Tuttle reads from one of the many markers highlighting the destruction caused by the Joplin storm. The park also honors the more than 182,000 people that volunteered in the aftermath of the tornado. That assistance was central to the city's disaster response and, according to City Manager Sam Anselm, will shape Joplin's recovering long term.

SAM ANSELM: It's going to start and it's going to end with the people who are on the ground in the community that you live in.

HARVEY: Officials at the summit talked about the logistics of debris removal and the importance of strengthening building code. Most of all, they counseled patience when working with the federal government. Walter Maddox is the mayor of Tuscaloosa, Ala., where 53 people were killed in a tornado just two months prior to Joplin's. At the conference, he noted the slow pace at which emergency management funds reach these communities prevents a speedy recovery.

WALTER MADDOX: Tuscaloosa, Joplin - we all have the same situation. So certainly this needs to be an area of evaluation. And today's conference can be a clarion call to make that happen.

HARVEY: Meri Stewart describes the long journey back to a permanent home heartbreaking because of the inability to settle down. She finally got that chance in December 2012, a year and a half after the storm.

STEWART: And after we moved everything in, I remember sitting down and crying and saying, wow, we don't have to live out of bags or boxes anymore.

HARVEY: Now, Stewart says, she is home for good. For NPR News, I'm Scott Harvey in Joplin, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.