Joplin dreams big at tornado recovery sessions

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — More parks and bicycle trails. Fewer clusters of dilapidated rental housing. And don’t forget public spaces for lovers of music and the arts.

Those are just some of the ideas on a redevelopment wish list offered by Joplin residents at a series of public sessions as the southwestern Missouri city recovers from the May 22 tornado that killed 160 people and injured hundreds more. About 70 people attended the first of two forums Tuesday at College Heights Christian Church in an undamaged part of the city. A similar mid-July session drew hundreds of participants.

Event organizers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency said public input is crucial when communities battered by natural disasters try to rebuild.

“There’s a lot of tragedy with this event,” said Steve Castaner, a director with FEMA’s long-term recovery branch. “But a lot of times there are opportunities.”

The twister damaged or destroyed thousands of homes. Four schools were destroyed and six other district buildings were damaged.

Participants at Tuesday’s session swapped ideas on how to not just fix but to also improve Joplin’s schools, neighborhoods, economy and environment. They shared their thoughts with a panel of federal and state government officials as well as on sheets of poster board arranged in the church’s lobby.

“I don’t know if we’re going about it right or doing it wrong. But at least we’re trying,” said Doug Doll, a local bank president.

A panel of local citizens will forward ideas generated from the community meetings to city, state and federal decision-makers. Ultimately, the details may be less important than the act of working together, Castaner said.

“Recovery isn’t a task,” he said. “It’s a process.”

Preventing a similar tragedy — the Joplin twister was the nation’s deadliest single tornado in the past six decades — remains a top concern. There were calls for more community storm shelters in schools and other public buildings, as well as an improved storm warning system.

Other suggestions were more esoteric, from the calls for a 10,000-seat civic center to attract national-caliber performers to a renovation of the city’s old train station into an arts gallery.

“We’re very concerned about the direction of this community,” said Mary Plunkett, a real estate agent and former teacher whose old school, Irving Elementary, was destroyed. “You wonder where our future is going to be. This helps with a vision.”

Whether most or even some of the ideas come to fruition remains to be seen.

“There’s limited resources. So there needs to be priorities,” Castaner noted.

And while elected leaders can help steer those decisions with zoning laws, building codes and other legal standards, the free market could ultimately do as much to shape 21st century Joplin as the tornado that leveled one-third of the city, one panelist acknowledged.

“There are hundreds of thousands of consumers out there who are only being given limited (housing) options,” said David Doyle, a sustainable communities coordinator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “Right now, the market rules. But the market can be tweaked.”

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