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Homeowners gradually rebuild in tornado-ravaged Joplin

Oct 2, 2011, 9:05 a.m.
Construction equipment is seen in Joplin, Missouri August 18, 2011. Residents are still recovering and rebuilding from a devastating tornado that ripped through Joplin in late May, killing nearly 160 people and destroying more than 8,000 homes and other structures. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

By Kevin Murphy

JOPLIN, Mo (Reuters) - Four months ago, a tornado swept Rick and Jolene Huffman out of their house and dumped them unconscious into a clearing more than a block away.

A harrowing way to lose their home and nearly their lives but the Huffmans are rebuilding on the same spot, undaunted by memories of the tornado or devastation of their neighborhood.

"It will look a little haggard here for a while, but it will bounce back," Jolene Huffman said.

Slowly, new homes are sprouting from the ruins of the May 22 tornado in Joplin. The city has issued 307 permits to build new homes, a figure that has climbed by 25 to 30 each week.

Each house is a step toward recovery from the tornado that wiped out about 7,500 homes and took 162 lives, said Troy Bolander, manager of planning and community development for Joplin.

"The shock is just now wearing off, and that is understandable," Bolander said. "People lost their home and everything else and they didn't want to face the future.

"What is encouraging and what may help is people seeing something going up. They don't want to be the only home on the block," he said.

To rebuild in Joplin demands tolerance of a stark landscape of barren lots, shredded trees and damaged properties that remain standing. Many residents still can't get used to the empty horizon.

"This was pretty wooded around here, and now you can basically see from here to the Kansas state line," said John Hughes, who is building a new home where his old one was destroyed.

Hughes plans to plant 35-foot trees around his house.

"We can't wait for the trees to grow again. We have to buy instant shade," he said.

Like the Huffmans, Hughes said he and his wife, Carla Hughes, chose to rebuild for practical reasons -- close to jobs, close to relatives, a familiar location.

"I was hoping more of our neighbors would come back, but they chose to do something else," Hughes said.

Construction contractor Harlin Stoner, who is building the Huffmans' home on the same slab where the previous house stood, said many people can't bring themselves to rebuild.

"They are devastated and shocked, and some don't want to deal with it," Stoner said.

Some empty lots have "For Sale By Owner" signs on them, others are listed through agencies.

Ryan Flanagan, a real estate agent in Joplin, said some people with young children don't want to live around empty lots that may have old foundations or debris. Other people simply don't want to wait for their house or neighborhood to get rebuilt, he said.

"It's going to be a long-term project, and it may be ten years before anything feels normal," Flanagan said.

Bolander said an estimated 88 percent of residents who lost their housing in the tornado still live within 25 miles of Joplin. Some rent, some bought other homes, some live with family members and some live in temporary housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Bolander said the city is doing a housing analysis to help predict how many people might stay in Joplin long-term.

Construction contractor John Adams said houses in many neighborhoods destroyed by the tornado were 70 or more years old. People with patience and foresight will be rewarded for rebuilding, he said.

"Sooner or later they will be surrounded by new homes," Adams said. "It will probably be much nicer than it ever was."

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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