WYSO

After Twister, Joplin Holds On To Broken Relics

Originally published on August 5, 2011 3:52 pm

Residents of Joplin, Mo., have worked overtime to move debris and make a fresh start after one of the most destructive tornadoes demolished a third of the city in May. Still, many cling to what outsiders may see as battered junk, in order to keep memories of the event from slipping away.

Just after the storm, for example, Randy Brown walked away from his splintered home pushing a trash can full of whatever he could salvage, possibly for a shrine.

"We're seeing all these broken items, and you know, I just realized that I need to memorialize this, even if it's just for me," Brown says.

Brown has a new house now, on the other side of Joplin. In his garage, bags of clothes and household things litter the floor, all carefully excavated from the wreck of his old place.

"It's just that it's hard to let it go. I even saved that broken lamp there," Brown says. "But now that I have it, I'm not sure why I saved it. But here it is."

He's having a hard time bringing himself to take this stuff from the garage into his new home. He doesn't even want to clean off the slurry of mud and finely ground debris that shellacked everything and everybody caught in that horrific storm.

'Tornado Poop'

"I've heard it called 'tornado poop' — the spatter that was whirled around, and you could see it into the side of houses, especially brick. You know, just stuck on everything. I just want to leave it there — the destroyed spattered way it looked that day," Brown says.

But most of Joplin now looks vastly different than it did "that day." Then, it was a mass of sharp, heaving rubble. Now, what you see, mostly, is naked concrete slabs or barren dirt where neighborhoods used to be. The debris has largely been piled into huge, nightmarish hills, landfills where it's churned and crushed by enormous machines.

At the public works yard in Joplin, Patrick Tuttle, the guy who runs the Convention and Visitors Bureau, shows a small pile of debris a lot of respect.

"We've got superstructure from the power grid, street signs, some things from the high school," Tuttle says. "Can't go back to the landfill two years from now and dig it out, so we're putting it away."

Main Street Memories

But nobody knows what to do with it. A museum, maybe? A memorial? Art? There are cars and trucks so mangled you can't tell what they are; thick I-beams bent like noodles; and a round, blue sign with old-fashioned font and a hole in the middle.

It says "Fresh Donuts," and it used to hang in front of Dude's Daylight Donuts.

"This has hung on Main Street in Joplin for long as I know," Tuttle says.

There's not much on this section of Main Street now, other than long, thin slabs of concrete.

Dude Pendergraft, 80, checks out the space that used to be home to his doughnut shop, now just one of those empty slabs. The tornado also destroyed his house, which was right behind his shop. Still, Pendergraft is rebuilding the business, with a new, prefab building — one that will go up quick. His son, Allen, is in charge of getting a new sign.

"We'll try to make it as close to the original as possible. Hopefully within about two or three months, it will be back shining in the night again, I hope," Allen Pendergraft says.

And there's a lot of hope around here, a lot of backbone. But it doesn't seem like people in Joplin want to just forget the disaster and get on with their lives, so much as come to grips with what the storm taught them about the world.

A lot of them seem to be counting on broken, splattered relics to keep that lesson fresh.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Crews in Joplin, Missouri have been working overtime to clear wreckage from one of the deadliest tornados on record. In May, that tornado killed 160 people and demolished thousands of buildings. A third of the city was destroyed. People in Joplin are anxious to move the debris and make a fresh start. Still, when Frank Morris of member station KCUR returned to Joplin this week, he found people also clinging to what at first glance might look like junk.

FRANK MORRIS: The first sign Randy Brown had that he was just about to lose nearly all of his possessions was when one of them burst into the house.

RANDY BROWN: Well, when the patio chair came through the patio door, it was a pretty good indication. Yeah.

MORRIS: Brown is speaking here the morning after the tornado, last May. He was walking away from his splintered home, pushing a trashcan full of whatever he could salvage, thinking about a shrine.

BROWN: You know we're seeing all these broken items, and, you know, I just realized that, I need to memorialize this, even if it's just for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARAGE DOOR OPENING)

MORRIS: Brown has a new house now, on the other side of Joplin. In his garage, bags of clothes and household items litter the floor, all of it carefully excavated from the wreck of his old place.

BROWN: It's just that, it's hard to let it go. I mean, I even saved that broken lamp there. But now that I have it, it's, like, I'm not sure why I saved it. But here it is.

MORRIS: He's having a hard time bringing himself to take this stuff from the garage into his new home. He doesn't even want to clean off the slurry of mud and finely ground debris that shellacked everything, and everybody, caught in that horrific storm.

BROWN: I've heard it called tornado poop. The spatter that was whirled around, and you could see it stuck into the side of houses, especially brick. You know, it just stuck on everything, and I just want to leave it there. You know, I want everything to look like it did, you know, in its destroyed, spattered way it was that day.

MORRIS: Most of Joplin now looks vastly different than it did that day. It was a mass of heaving rubble. Now, what you see, mostly, is naked concrete slabs, or barren dirt, where neighborhoods used to be. The debris has largely been piled into huge, nightmarish hills, landfills where it's churned and crushed by enormous machines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

PATRICK TUTTLE: We've been putting pieces away. We've got superstructure from the power grid that we've put away. We've got street signs, we've got some things from the high school. We can't go back to a landfill and dig it out two years from now, so we started putting it away.

MORRIS: But nobody knows what to do with it. A museum, maybe? A memorial? Art? They've got cars and trucks so mangled you can't tell what they are, thick steel I-beams bent like noodles and a round, blue sign with old-fashioned font, and a hole in the middle.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING IN RUBBLE)

MORRIS: So, what is this?

TUTTLE: This is Fresh Donuts. This is the original sign that goes back to the '50s, I believe, from Dude's Donuts. And this has hung on Main Street in Joplin for - long as I know.

MORRIS: Are you the Dude?

DUDE PENDERGRAFT: I'm the Dude.

MORRIS: How you doing?

PENDERGRAFT: Well, I'm walking on top.

MORRIS: Dude Pendergraft is 80, and spry.

PENDERGRAFT: We're standing right in the middle of the old donut shop. After the tornado blowed it away. I couldn't believe it.

MORRIS: It got his house, too, which was right behind his shop. Still, Pendergraft is rebuilding the business, putting up a new prefab building, one that will go up quick. His son, Allen Pendergraft, is in charge of getting a new sign.

ALLEN PENDERGRAFT: We'll try to make as close to the original as possible. Hopefully, with in about two or three months, it will be back up shining in the night again, I hope.

MORRIS: For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.