Exploring Joplin, Missouri, Recovering From Disaster

The most terrifying thing about touring the disaster zone caused by the May 22 EF-5 tornado here is the randomness of the devastation, the sight of a vacant lot where a house once stood, literally across the street from a home still whole. The destruction that the storm wrought is already disappearing from view as the Corps of Engineers and contractors raze what’s left of damaged structures. The empty lots, the clean slabs, the bare earth, these vacant holes in the cityscape were made so by backhoes and clean-up teams, not the winds and flying debris.

I downloaded an aerial image file for Google Earth, collected by aircraft on May 24, that shows in sickening detail the tornado’s random walk through the city. Much, but not all, of the clean up has been done: A white van tossed against a fence on 24th Street, seen in the imagery, was still sitting there on August 1.

Traveling the American Road – Joplin, Missouri

By July 22, the city had issued roughly 1,700 building permits for reconstruction, as it simultaneously builds a mobile home park for storm survivors along Highway 171, north of downtown. Christened Jeff Taylor Field for a Kansas City-area police officer who died after suffering wounds during storm cleanup efforts, it will soon have nearly 500 homes. Many are already in place, and contractors continue working in the hot dust, grading sites and hooking up utilities in the 108-degree heat. Whether any much-needed shade trees will be part of the temporary development remains in doubt.

To orient myself to the destruction, I spoke with Lindsey Henry, a Texas native who moved to Joplin to report on the disaster for KOAM and KFJX and live with her extended family. She’s in the tornado zone every day, she says, looking for stories, watching the recovery and likely breathing in asbestos dust and toxic fumes from the wreckage. It’s a little-discussed aspect of the clean-up efforts, she points out, as is the tent city that’s popped up south of town, drawing people not affected by the tornado to the area to take advantage of services for victims.

Visitors to Joplin, volunteers or otherwise, often head to St. Mary’s, a church that was destroyed but for its 20-foot-high iron cross, now standing watch over the colossal field of debris. At dusk, a crew of demolition workers struck up a conversation. They’re from Kansas City, in town to rip down the shells of buildings here. They were surprisingly dispassionate about the work, even the job of tearing down the church.


As we chatted, a woman came up to fill them in about her brother, who was working a job site nearby. Two thugs, she said, had assaulted him in order to steal scrap from the wreckage. The police have picked up a suspect, but she warned the workers to watch for more crimes and be on the lookout for a white crew-cab pickup.

More than two months after the storm ruined 30 percent of the city, Joplin is making surprisingly fast progress. Barren landscapes persist, but with a cleanup of 3 million cubic yards of debris almost complete, the city is looking forward to what’s next. What, on this clean slate of a downtown, can be built to bring Joplin back stronger than before?

One local start-up has an answer. Rebuild Joplin is an ultra-light collective that sprung up after the storm to connect locals to the resources they’d need to rebuild. Started in less than 36 hours, it was so slick, so effective, so exactly what was needed in the wake of the large-scale destruction, FEMA interviewed co-founders Garen McMillian and Mark Kinsley to see if it was part of a scam. The agency was instead pleasantly surprised.

“This is helping Joplin maximize all the resources that are out there,” Garen says. “If you can minimize duplication–you have a lot of people trying to do the same things out there–if we can keep the communication lines open so everybody’s aware of what’s already being done and they’re not reinventing the wheel, then that’s that much more energy that can be expended toward something concrete for Joplin.”

The idea is simple: A website that aggregates information and connects people in need of services to the already extant agencies and people who can provide them. In the wake of a large-scale disaster, the site was optimized for mobile devices, which was the only way many survivors had to access the web. As the needs of storm victims evolve away from basics–Joplin has more donated water, food and clothing than it has places to store it–the site’s mission continues to adapt to meet more challenging needs.

“Here we are today with much more complicated needs,” Mark says. “Once you have a place to live and have clothes and some food, where do you go from there? We’re having to adjust what we do a bit, while staying on mission. Now the needs are really complicated, sophisticated needs, and we’re trying to adapt to that. It’s really easy for people to hand someone a canned good–and it feels good–but what do you do when somebody needs help with tax preparation information that relates to your FEMA application? It’s a different skill set and we’re having to adjust and adapt.”

After The Flood: Nashville’s Rebuilt Gaylord Opryland Hotel

A few days after I explored vibrant post-flood New Orleans, reborn and bustling in the wake of the storm nobody’s forgotten, I found myself in the lobby of the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, the largest non-casino hotel in the country.

It’s home to the famed Grand Ole Opry, the shrine of country music, and sits along the Cumberland River, which poured over its banks last year, flooding the city and causing more than a billion dollars of damage in an event so severe it’s forecast to happen only once every thousand years.

More than nine inches of rain fell on Nashville in 24 hours. By May 3, 2010, the hotel was no longer on the banks of the river. It was in the river.


This July, in the vast lobby of the Opryland, I met Jenny Barker, the resort’s PR director. She pointed out the huge chandeliers, hanging about 10 feet above the floor. If these new fixtures had been here during the flood, she says, they would’ve been submerged.

Built in stages since 1977, when it opened with 601 rooms and a single ballroom, the hotel is an adventure in monumental proportion, even more so when seen through the lens of recovery from the disaster. Among other features, the Opryland has a quarter-mile-long artificial river, nine acres of tropical botanical gardens, dozens of waterfalls, thousands of rooms, restaurants of every stripe, more than 600,000 square feet of meeting space. It takes 3,600 employees to run the place, including the musician who valeted my car on check-in. Turns out he’s a friend of a friend of a friend.

The size of the hotel is so staggering–and so confusing upon arrival–that the hotel prints out maps for guests, directing them to their rooms. Carpeting is color-coded to help with way finding. I knew I was close to my room, in the Delta wing, when the green flooring gave way to red, indicating elevator bank D1 would be right around the corner. To make a phone call to another room, you have to press six numbers.

Oddly, my room had a balcony, indoors but overlooking the artificial river and a New Orleans-themed public space called Delta Island. The sun streamed in through a glass canopy, and the stillness of the air gave the feeling of being encased in some elaborate biodome. I was five miles from downtown Nashville, but it might as well have been on another planet.

The flood of 2010 reminded everyone that Opryland is just as real and as fragile as the rest of the rest of the city. Employees rounded up about 1,500 guests for evacuations and the hotel, like many businesses in the city, was shuttered.

Amazingly, the entire hotel opened just 195 days after 71.3 million gallons of water were pumped out of mechanical closets, underground passageways, atriums and the 115 guest rooms that were flooded. (Most guest rooms were not inundated.) In addition to repairs, the property used the flood-forced closure to carry out renovations. Again, the statistics are mind boggling: nearly 281,000 square feet of carpeting were replaced and more than a million drywall screws turned.

The rebuild also allowed Opryland to address environmental concerns. The resort modernized its laundry plant to consume less water and set goals to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2015. Future additions–not an unlikely prospect given the expansionary history here–will pursue LEED certification.

It’s not all wonky either: This winter, a partnership with DreamWorks will bring characters from the Madagascar movie franchise to the hotel for a Christmas program, November 18 through January 8. Unsurprisingly, the show will involve an unbelievably large volume of ice: 2 million pounds of the stuff will be carved for the event.

In St. Louis, Finding Family Connections on The Hill

Vitale’s bakery in St. Louis makes 25,000 pizza “shells” a week, turning out the flash-baked crusts on a production line in a sturdy brick building on Marconi Avenue. Many go to local restaurants. But as I toured Vitale’s recently, a guy snuck in the side door, his granddaughter in tow, picked up a sack of shells and ducked out. No big deal: He’s a friend of the family. It all makes sense in this flag-flying Italian neighborhood, simply called The Hill, an ethnic enclave seemingly impervious to change, just a few miles from the Arch.

Traveling the American Road – On The Hill in St. Louis

At the bakery, I met three generations of the family that’s been working here since 1977. Mike Vitale showed me around, as his dad, brother, nephew and another couple employees who aren’t related to him pulled dough out of an enormous mixer, to weigh out, roll and process hamburger buns for baking. They were to be sold that weekend, while the Cardinals were playing three home games against their rivals, the Cubs, thereby cranking up the city’s consumption of burgers. It’s surprisingly artisanal food, hand-made if produced in huge quantities. The farthest the finished rolls will travel is across the Mississippi to Illinois.

Inside the bakery, the smell of yeast hangs heavy. Despite the ovens, it’s not particularly hot but maybe it just feels that way because it’s been so sweltering in St. Louis this summer. There are Cardinals stickers and family photos on various machinery, and one employee was wearing a t-shirt silk-screened with the names of other local businesses that play together on a bocce league.

More proof of the neighborhood’s continued ethnic tilt is Il Pensiero, a bilingual newspaper published twice a month and distributed on The Hill. The publishers surname? Lombardo, a nod to the northern Italian region from which many of the neighborhood’s immigrants came. In front of St. Ambrose, the Romanesque church on Wilson Avenue, a statue memorializes the poverty and hope of the Italians washing up on American shores, even here, more than a thousand miles from the Atlantic.

My cousins have moved into the neighborhood, too, with a deli, Eovaldi’s, named for our great-grandmother. I don’t mention it simply because they’re family: the boys had the best deli in the city in 2010 according to local independent paper The Riverfront Times, which writes:

When your deli is located inside the Oldani Brothers Salami factory, chances are you make a mean Italian sandwich. Sure enough, Eovaldi’s nook-like location on the Hill can pile on the salty cured meats with the best of them–favorites likes Genoa salami, mortadella and coppa are available, as well as the more pedestrian deli meats.

The neighborhood got a two-page spread recently in Feast magazine, a local foodie read, with one local writing in to say “I think no place in St. Louis represents something as unique as The Hill.” Pictured with the story are Rigazzi’s, Milo’s, Missouri Bakery, Il Viviano and Zia’s. Missing is a shot of Volpi’s, a salami house my mother is pretty much always raving about.

New development is breaking the traditional bounds of The Hill. Restaurants are moving beyond the red sauce mold, including Modesto, a tapas spot, that’s landed on St. Louis magazine’s “A-List” of the best places in town. The magazine also gave a nod to Five Bistro, a block west of Rigazzi’s, which won “Best Burger in St. Louis.” Real estate, too, is booming, the surest sign that the neighborhood is still surging. My aunt, mother to my cousins at Eovaldi’s, is downright horrified with the rents people are charging.

Driving the Natchez Trace Parkway: A Road Trip within a Road Trip

The National Park Service brags that the Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile drive through nature and American history, all of which sounded interesting enough for me to attempt the drive over a two-day span. The history was there, with the grave of Meriwether Lewis, a ghost town at Rocky Springs and Native American burial mounds.

The natural beauty is outstanding, too, with a cypress-filled swamp, waterfalls, towering trees hanging over the parkway and a gorgeous bridge spanning Birdsong Hollow. But I came upon a shocking revelation: The parkway is only actually 442 miles long, with the final marker at the exit of the Trace near Nashville, proof that my brochure is full of government sponsored lies. It’s a parkway conspiracy!

Traveling the American Road – Driving the Natchez Trace Parkway

Originally a network of Native American trails, the Natchez Trace gained prominence after the settlement of the Mississippi River region, when packet and flat boats carried goods down the river to Gulf ports. Before the invention of the steamship, there was only one way to get back to the city you’d departed: walking north. And the Trace, with its established towns, frequent traffic and relative ease of navigation, was a veritable interstate highway of the era.

Of course, hitching a ride on one of Robert Fulton’s steam-powered paddle boats was even easier. After the turn of the 19th century, merchant’s who’d just sold a haul of goods at market in New Orleans–or even Natchez itself–could take a much swifter route home by river. So began the decline of the Trace, no longer needed as a north-south thoroughfare once the river provide a right of way for two-way traffic.

Neglected, the Trace was rebuilt as a Parkway during the great depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Tupelo, Mississippi, the rough half-way point on the Trace, was the first city powered by the TVA, another of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives.) Though started in the 30s, work to completely finish the route wasn’t finished until 2005. Despite its centuries-long existence, it’s only been possible to drive the Trace for six years.

I split my journey into two days, a nod to the length–two miles short of 444–and the 50-mph speed limit. Initially terrified by the plodding pace, I came to appreciate the mandate to slow down, pulling off spontaneously to explore historical markers, take short hikes and fuel up at country stores just off the byway. At one shop, the lone gas pump still had reel-style dials, like you’d see on a slot machine, that hypnotically clinked over as I refueled. There were a few good ol’ boys sitting around inside, chewing the fat with fly swatters in hand.

The most interesting stop was the grave of Meriwether Lewis, the leader of the expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. A memorial column, hewn short of its capital in a nod to Lewis’s early death, marks the grave, set on a large grassy plot, off the parkway. Elsewhere, ruins of the ghost town of Rocky Springs are an erie reminder of the ephemerality of trade routes. Aside from a church that’s been maintained by a local congregation, two hulking, rusting safes are all that remain visibly intact of this town that once had 2,000 residents.

The parkway then is an epic drive through history. Even if it’s not quite 444 miles long.

Three Awesome Small Towns, Best Seen by Road Trip

In the past few weeks, I’ve spent plenty of time in small towns. They’re the kinds of places you only visit on a road trip, when passing through, going to bigger cities and bigger sites that aren’t sequestered below the Mason-Dixon, far from a major airport or hidden, for example, in rural Mississippi. (I’ve never heard my friends, otherwise adventurous types, talk about catching the next flight out of New York to Tupelo.)

But there are great travel experiences to be had in small-town America, where you don’t need a lifetime to peel back the layers of history like you might in Philadelphia or Boston. These small towns are manageable, navigable and just plain visitable. (It helps that every single person I met was super-friendly too.) These towns, all with fewer than 50,000 residents, have been some of my favorites stops on the trip, and here’s how to see them.


Natchez, Mississippi
Natchez is, as it’s always been, a quintessential river town. A little bawdy, rough around the edges and a stopping point by definition: It’s at the head of the Natchez Trace Parkway. There’s not much to do here but wait for the next ship to come in, whether its a coast guard cutter–there’s one stationed here–or a boatload of luck at the Isle of Capri, a smoky riverboat casino that provides some contact with the gambling past–and present–of the Mississippi.

What often happens, though, is that visitors set up headquarters at the Natchez Grand Hotel and simply slow down. If they’re feeling adventurous, there are antebellum mansions to tour because the town surrendered to General Grant in the Civil War, sparing its buildings to watch history, like the river, wash on by. The even more intrepid visitor will brave the Under the Hill Saloon, a honky tonk with guest rooms upstairs that come with a disclaimer: “One demanding complete silence before 2 a.m. should probably stay elsewhere.”

Tupelo, Mississippi
On first glance, there’s one thing to see in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis’ first home is here, a two-room shack built for $180, where the singer was born January 8, 1935. But a downtown arena–where The Eagles, Tom Petty, Cirque du Soleil and Bill Cosby have played since its opening in the 90s–has sparked new development, with restaurants and bars taking up storefronts where stalwarts like Reed’s Department Store and Booth’s Tupelo Hardware Company still carry on.

Nautical Whimsy is a wine bar and Italian bistro, while 212 Cafe does a fantastic lunch and brisk coffee business starting at sunrise. Romie’s, a local BBQ titan, has a new location on Troy Street, around the corner from Fairpark Grill, a perhaps surprisingly good steakhouse and bar. (The small business world isn’t all success stories: Joe Joe’s Espresso went under recently but still sells fantastically roasted beans to 212.) Not bad for a town of 40,000, halfway to Nashville along the Trace.


Paducah, Kentucky
In Western Kentucky, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, Paducah is a town of just 25,000, not quite 200 years old, founded by William Clark, of Lewis and Clark renown. But the last 20 years have turned it into a creative capital under even the most powerful of radar. Thanks to talkative artists who have taken up residence there, word is starting to leak out about this enclave by the rivers: The town was recently named one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 12 destinations of distinction. The recognition, says the Trust, guarantees “an authentic visitor experience [featuring] dynamic downtowns, cultural diversity, attractive architecture, cultural landscapes and a strong commitment to historic preservations, sustainability and revitalization.” Sounds like Paducah!

A city-sponsored artist relocation program has turned the LowerTown neighborhood into a gallery hopper’s dream, just a few blocks from downtown, with dozens of homes and studios to visit. The biggest ticket in Paducah may be the National Quilt Museum–it has more thrills than you’d expect!–but creative local businesses are making small-town life exciting: Max’s serves outstanding brick-oven pizza, Etcetera has the best coffee in town and Kirchhoff’s Bakery is a family-run institution, re-opened in its original location after 40 years with the ovens off.

The city center is quite manageable by foot, but the city tourism bureau has put together a cell phone walking tour that lets visitors dial in for more info as they explore historic shop buildings, theaters and churches. (The number is 270-854-3050. Try it now!) More importantly, it’s a small enough town that people will happily strike up a conversation with you, just to find out what the heck you’re doing in Paducah. More often than not, it’s someone fascinating, like Shane Lee, the clothing designer I met while getting a cup of coffee. For personal connections and experiences like that, maybe it is worth hopping a plane to flyover country.