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Joplin commemorates anniversary of tornado

5/22/2012

By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER

Associated Press

JOPLIN, Mo. -- A day of solemn remembrances and forward-looking celebrations was planned today as Joplin commemorates the anniversary of a tornado that ripped the city in half.

The May 22, 2011, twister was the nation's deadliest in six decades, killing 161 people, injuring hundreds more and destroying thousands of buildings, including the city's only public high school. Groundbreaking ceremonies are scheduled at three sites for replacement buildings, including Joplin High School's future home.

Gov. Jay Nixon, who joined President Barack Obama on Monday night as a Joplin High School graduation speaker, planned to attend a sunrise service and "journey of healing" at Freeman Hospital honoring the city's medical workers and volunteers who have aided the recovery. The hospital has seen a surge in use after the tornado destroyed St. John's Regional Medical Center, which since has occupied a succession of temporary facilities but is being rebuilt at a new location -- and renamed as Mercy Hospital Joplin.

A 4-mile unity walk through some of the city's hardest hit neighborhoods began at 2 p.m. in neighboring Duquesne, where more than one-fourth of the community's 750 homes were destroyed and nine people died. The Joplin portion of the walk began past a Walmart, where 200 people survived the storm by huddling together in employee break rooms, bathrooms and other designated safe zones. Three people, though, were killed inside the store.

The walk will conclude with a moment of silence at Cunningham Park at 5:41 p.m., the precise time when the EF-5 tornado packing 200 mph winds hit Joplin. The city park, which is across the street from the hulking remains of the St. John's hospital, since has been rebuilt.

While many of today's events will reflect upon the past year, community leaders also are looking ahead toward what is bound to be a long recovery effort.

In January, elected officials and other members of a 45-person recovery committee endorsed a long-term recovery plan that calls for the creation of four new business districts that would allow residents to live and shop nearby and a unified approach to rebuilding that ensures new construction meets certain design standards.

In March, the city hired Wallace Bajjali Development Partners of Sugar Land, Texas, as its "master developer" to oversee the rebuilding plan.

The day's events also are expected to attract some of the more than 130,000 volunteers who descended on southwest Missouri from across the country to help out. That group includes a contingent of bicyclists who left New York City's Central Park nearly three weeks ago on a Cycle for Joplin fundraising ride organized by a group of former Joplin residents known as the Joplin Expats.