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How does Kentucky recover from the tornado? Joplin shares some lessons and hope

Loren Grable searches in the rain for mementos in rubble that was once her grandparent's home before it was destroyed the tornado on Dec. 10 in Dawson Springs, Ky.
Scott Olson
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Getty Images
Loren Grable searches in the rain for mementos in rubble that was once her grandparent's home before it was destroyed the tornado on Dec. 10 in Dawson Springs, Ky.

Federal and state recovery efforts have already begun for the parts of western Kentucky that were devastated by a deadly tornado earlier this month, but officials say a full recovery could take years. The storm left at least 77 people dead and resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage.

That path to recovery is something the city and residents of Joplin, Mo., know all too well. It has been a little more than 10 years since one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history carved a 7-mile path of destruction through the city. The tornado in Joplin killed 161 people and became the costliest tornado in modern history.

Joplin Mayor Ryan Stanley said places hit by large natural disasters first have to assess the scale of the damage before any recovery efforts can begin.

"The first thing you've got to do, you've got to clear that land, you've got to get that blank canvas in place," Stanley said. "And it took us all the way until August to get the debris cleared out."

An aerial view of destroyed businesses in Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 15, five days after tornadoes hit the area.
Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An aerial view of destroyed businesses in Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 15, five days after tornadoes hit the area.

Stanley says it also takes time to figure out all the different kinds of resources coming in — whether from the government, donations, or the city's own resources.

"Then you have to go and best practice, and my opinion is go to the public," he said. "How do you want us to rebuild the city? What do you want? And so it literally has taken us 10 years. I mean, obviously to get to where we are today, but where we are today, we feel like we're standing on our own two feet. We feel like we have done the lion's share of the work and we've seen the growth that's come out of that."

Stanley spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about why the path to recovery is so long, how the Joplin community is doing today and advice for those in Western Kentucky.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On how the disaster changed Joplin as a community and as individuals

Well, I think that you've got the whole community and how it's been affected, as well as a whole. And then you have families that have all dealt with this in a different way. [I had] three family members ... that were in the tornado that were not injured there, it was just they lost their stuff. And we started to realize very quickly, that's the first lesson: it's just stuff. We can replace that. We can't replace your health. We can't replace your life, but we can replace that stuff very, very quickly. And so I think it's made Joplin appreciate the interactions with each other more than the stuff that we have in our lives.

Volunteers bring relief supplies donated to help those affected by the tornado that hit Dawson Springs, Ky., earlier this month.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Volunteers bring relief supplies donated to help those affected by the tornado that hit Dawson Springs, Ky., earlier this month.

On heartening changes that came as part of rebuilding

I'm going to err on the side of omission because there are so many of these. We have new employers that came to town just because of how Joplin portrayed themselves after the tornado. We have a brand new medical school, one of the first medical schools I think in decades that's this side of the Mississippi in Joplin, that's literally here because of the tornado. We have a brand new state of the art high school. It's nicer than anything our kids would have ever had before the tornado. We have brand new homes that have been built in an area where the homes were dilapidated, and they were falling apart and they had a shelf life and they were not going to survive. After 10 years, it's definitive that we were on the right path and that the hard work that we put in for those years has paid off handsomely.

On advice for the people and officials in western Kentucky right now

Well, I would say the one piece of advice – I don't know if it's advice, but it just, it does get better. You will build back. You will build back bigger and stronger and better than you were before. These storms of life – we hate when they happen to us, and no one wants them to happen to us, but there are silver linings to this storm, even though we know that right now, it really stinks. The city of Joplin stands with you, and anything we can do to lighten that load, we would welcome that opportunity.

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