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'The longest six, seven minutes of my life': Joplin remembers

Joplin High School, where Bennett teaches.
Joplin High School, where Bennett teaches.

  Two years to the day that an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, killing 161 people, the city was greeted with near perfect weather, as thousands came out Wednesday to honor the lives of those lost, and reflect upon the continuing recovery effort.

Just hours before the ceremony at Cunningham Park, Melinda Underwood is trimming her backyard lawn at the corner of 26th St. and Pennsylvania Ave, a site that was within the path of destruction on May 22, 2011. It was about six blocks north, inside Underwood’s then apartment complex, where she could have easily become the storm’s 162nd victim.   

“We were sliding and my youngest had her legs wrapped around my chest as my legs started to go up to… being taken away I guess. And she wouldn’t let go and I think it was the longest six, seven minutes of my life,” Underwood said. 

Driving east from the park along 26th Street, there are several empty lots and few large, developed trees. But there’s also an assortment of newly constructed homes. In fact, officials say more than 80 percent of the 7,500 that were destroyed have been either rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt. And while city leaders have chosen not to mandate the construction of safe rooms in new homes, they have taken steps to improve a structure’s stability, including requiring hurricane straps for roofs. For community members like Underwood, it’s the work of city officials, as well as the many volunteers, that have helped move the recovery effort along as planned.

“We had strangers from all over the world that came to help that didn’t have to. But chose to be away from their families to come help us get it together and figure out where we needed to go forward. So we’re just very blessed.”

“Absolutely wonderful. Couldn’t have done it without all the volunteers.”

The home of Atalaya Garrison’s mother was destroyed in the 2011 tornado. She says the dedication shown by volunteers over the last two years has inspired her to lend time to the recovery effort that’s just begun in Moore, Oklahoma.

The twister that struck the Oklahoma City suburb Monday was not lost during Wednesday’s ceremony in Joplin, where donations were being collected to benefit the city, and teams from southwest Missouri had already been deployed to assist in the area.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who earlier in the day toured the wreckage in Moore, spoke of resilience, which along with the terms “resolve” and “revitalization” made up the theme for Wednesday’s event.  

“The entire Joplin community played an important role in the recovery process. For example, deciding to build more resilient schools outside of the flood plain, develop stronger standards for home construction, and develop shared facilities for youth at storm shelters,” Napolitano said.

It was a ceremony that honored the dead, praised the hours upon hours of help, and expressed much optimism for the future. But folks in Tornado Alley are not oblivious to the risks they face each severe weather season, nor are they numb to the emotional element that comes when another community is devastated by a storm. 

Back at 26th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., two years after she was nearly swept away by that EF-5, Melinda Underwood and her children are working to balance their emotions while paying it forward.

“It’s hard for us to be happy sometimes when we’re sitting here OK and we see what’s going on in Oklahoma. They went through their closets yesterday, cleaned out all clothes, and shoes, and all that stuff, and that was the first thing they did. They were wanting to help in any way they can. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make a trip down there or not, but they know what it feels like,” said Underwood.

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