JOPLIN, Mo. – Empty concrete pads where houses once stood. Untouched playgrounds still riddled with broken glass. A once-bustling retail district, eerily quiet on a weekend night.
Two months after a huge tornado split Joplin in half, the recovery here has barely begun, and the city remains focused on cleaning up massive mounds of debris. But local leaders say Joplin and the neighboring village of Duquesne already face another question: How much to rebuild and how much to reinvent?
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, what we really want to do is return to business as usual, go back to exactly what was there at the earliest possible time, get everyone back in their homes," said Bob Berkebile, a Kansas City architect and disaster recovery specialist who has been working informally as a consultant in Joplin. "But I have never seen a community where they couldn't have made a decision to build back something different."
In Joplin, city officials, neighborhoods and families are beginning to confront decisions that involve trade-offs of cost, speed, quality and uncertainty: whether to strengthen building codes to produce better houses, but also some delay; to plot out more parks and amenities that would raise the quality of life, but require detailed planning; to require new storm safety features that would balance peace of mind against more expense for those of modest incomes.
Some choices are being made in an atmosphere still charged with crisis.
Since the storm, "People were buying homes sight unseen," said real estate agent Allen Hall. "There was a time for a couple of weeks where people would come in and say, 'I don't care about the price, I need this home.'"
Jeff Goldhammer, a local nonprofit manager whose home was destroyed, is living 25 miles away in Neosho for several more weeks until the house he purchased is available. With a vacant lot on his hands but a glut of similar lots available, he's listening to the public conversation and wondering what to do.
"You had homes worth triple digits destroyed, and then you had homes for people with low to moderate incomes destroyed," he said. "These groups of people have different situations, different desires."
Following the experience of other storm-damaged cities is difficult because of the scope of the damage in Joplin.
More than 7,000 homes were destroyed in the city of 50,000. The May 22 tornado killed 159 people, displaced 5,000 workers, smashed 10 public school buildings and ruined 18,000 cars. The funnel left a trail of damage nearly 14 miles after touching down.
Berkebile, whose work as a "green" designer has taken him to Haiti and other disaster zones, and Bill White, a state lawmaker who survived the tornado by huddling in a restaurant's walk-in freezer, are among those pondering how Joplin could change for the better. They say they draw inspiration from the tornado-ravaged Kansas town of Greensburg, which rebuilt with an environmentally friendly approach that has earned international acclaim. New homes used recycled materials, energy-saving lights and rainwater collection systems.
But Greensburg, which was struck in 2007, was a town of only 1,400. So far, specific proposals for Joplin are in short supply.
Still, there are signs of recovery across the damage zone. Roughly 70 percent of the nearly 2 million cubic yards of loose debris has been trucked to landfills. Home Depot and other major retailers along the flattened Rangeline Road corridor have built temporary tents to serve customers or entirely new stores.
Many residents still are negotiating with insurance companies or awaiting federal disaster assistance. A 60-day city moratorium on new construction, enacted in mid-June, generated protests that it would keep those ready to rebuild now from returning to Joplin. The city announced Friday that it would start issuing building permits for a larger swath of the stricken area and already has issued nearly 1,700 residential building permits to repair tornado damage.
The short-term delay is designed to keep the focus on debris removal. City leaders want to get as much cleared as possible by Aug. 7, when the federal government's share of the cost will decline from 90 percent to 75 percent. That could mean an estimated $3 million a day.
While focused on that deadline, city officials acknowledge a need to take a step back to envision a 21st century redesign for a city best known as a 20th century pit stop along Route 66 or for the Depression-era exploits of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde.
White, who also is an attorney as well as a former nuclear engineer, convened a conference earlier this month at Missouri Southern State University called "Rebuild Joplin Strong." Berkebile was the keynote speaker.
The goal was to bring together residents with builders and architects who specialize in construction techniques such as insulated concrete walls — techniques that White said are not just safer but also are better for the environment and that lower utility costs.
"A lot of safe building techniques are also energy efficient," he said.
Greensburg, 300 miles to the west, added several public storm shelters, a move Joplin is considering. A former Joplin fire chief highlighted the lack of such shelters in a 2006 report that never was acted upon.
Joplin's elected leaders say they're unlikely to require storm shelters in new homes or businesses, wary of placing added expenses on an economically vulnerable population. They also are likely to suggest only modest improvements to building codes, primarily the use of metal reinforcing straps known as hurricane clips on roof rafters and anchor bolts to provide more stability during high winds.
Not all residents are thinking about the rebuilding choices. Virginia Bennett, 86, who is awaiting government assistance for damaged roof posts on her home, is planning move in with a grown daughter in Winnipeg, Canada, as soon as she can.
"I don't ever want to be in or near a tornado again," she said. "Because you have absolutely no control."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier.