JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - When executives with "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" contacted builder Sam Clifton about a project in Joplin, he told them it was a great idea, but building a single home wouldn't send much of a message to a community that lost more than 7,000 of them to a devastating spring tornado.
So on Wednesday, work began on a project to build seven homes in seven days that will be featured on the popular ABC show. It is another effort by volunteers to reshape the southwest Missouri community that still is in the early stages of recovering from the May 22 twister that killed 162 people, one of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history.
The homes, which are going up a few blocks from the city's hospital, which was destroyed, will be far from opulent. Clifton, who is overseeing the project, said the new units will be functional, 1,300- to 1,800-square-foot homes, similar in size and style to many of the dwellings destroyed in the tornado.
"We want to help get the community going," Clifton said. "Get some excitement going in the town. That's my goal."
The TV show typically rebuilds a single home for a family that has been struck with some tragic circumstances. In Joplin's case, the seven homes are being built along the same street, just a few blocks from the hospital that was destroyed in the tornado.
"This is what we do," said Diane Korman, senior producer for the program. "We look for families in trouble and how to help them."
Korman said the show's staff gathered on May 23, the day after the tornado, to discuss a project in Joplin. They contacted Clifton, with whom they had worked on a 2009 show in Ash Grove, Mo., and concurred with his assessment that the project needed to be bigger than one home.
The families getting the new homes range in size from two to six, and their stories are compelling.
They include single mother Crystal Whitely, who took cover with her three children in a bathtub. Two were killed, leaving only Whitely and her 4-year-old daughter, Keana. Joplin firefighter Kyle Howard was working the night of the tornado and didn't know if his family survived, yet he rescued trapped victims and tended to injured people as he drove through the rubble to get home.
Clifton said 10,000 volunteers have signed up to help with the project, along with 21 general contractors from around the region and hundreds of skilled tradesmen.
The show paid for the families to take a trip to Disney World for the week. They'll be back on Oct. 26, when host Ty Pennington will deliver the famous "move that bus" proclamation and the families will see the homes for the first time.
The episode is scheduled to be the 200th for the program, and is tentatively scheduled to air Jan. 20.
The TV show has generated a lot of buzz in Joplin, where new homes are springing up and construction crews work late into the night. Millions of tons of debris have been cleared, and for-sale signs dot now-vacant land - in some cases, land that stretches for several blocks.
Banks and pharmacies are operating out of makeshift buildings or mobile homes. The Home Depot, where several people died in the tornado, has reopened in a huge tent.
Signs of rebirth are everywhere, but there's still a lot of work ahead. Huge tarps still cover holes and blown-out walls on many homes, there are still piles of debris awaiting disposal and homes damaged beyond repair awaiting demolition.
Clifton, who lives in Springfield, characterizes Joplin's process of rebuilding as slow.
"I think people are waiting to see what the community will do, if their neighbors will rebuild."
The "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" project will involve a massive undertaking in a short amount of time. But Clifton has no worries the homes will be finished on time. All seven were progressing nicely on Wednesday, with newly-poured foundations poured, floors in place, walls already up. One house already had the beams for the roof.
Each of the homes has a different design, with exteriors a mix of siding and stone.
Volunteers are working 12-hour shifts, and work is going around the clock.
"We've got people that lost their houses who wanted to come help us," Clifton said.
All of the materials for the project were donated, and churches in Joplin are working together to prepare about 30,000 meals for those involved in the building process.
It's not the first time Clifton was involved in an "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" project. In 2009, his Millstone Custom Homes led the effort to provide a new home for the Hampton family in Ash Grove, Mo.
Despite the heartbreak and tragedy in Joplin, the makers of the show have been overwhelmed by the spirit, Korman said.
"There is such a heart here in Joplin," she said. "It's such a strong community."