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.

The Flood’s Been Over: Exploring the New New Orleans

Driving to the best breakfast spot in New Orleans, a somewhat dingy beignet shop in suburban Metairie called Morning Call, where cops and bounty hunters converse at the corner table, I turned on the local radio. The set picked up AM 690, and a program called Inside New Orleans. The host, Eric Asher, started talking about Tales of the Cocktail, an annual drinking convention for bartenders and liquor brands that’s quickly becoming one of the city’s banner festivals.

He loves the event, he tells his guest “Mr. Cocktail,” because it brings people to the city to see it’s not still underwater. Turns out, there are still people, six years after Katrina and the levee failure, who think New Orleans is flooded. On the contrary! The city is building, with an ever-expanding museum, local entrepreneurs starting businesses and, yes, an absolutely unparalleled drinking scene.

Traveling the American Road – New Orleans Rising

The most notable development for tourists since the storm in 2005–besides of course the clean up–is The National WWII Museum, a stunning collection of buildings housing artifacts large and small, cataloging the history of the war. Set on the western edge of the Central Business District, the latest addition is a 4-D movie, complete with lighting effects and rumble seats, that tells the story of the war’s multiple theaters.

Tom Hanks narrates the 45-minute production that doesn’t shy away from the difficult history of the period. Similarly, the museum galleries are brutally honest about the horrors of total war, from photos of the dead and dying, archival footage from concentration camps or frank discussion of the civilian casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sober displays of the weapons of the war used at the infantryman level–grenades, flamethrowers, squad machine guns–frame them as viciously effective tools of death, not the glamorous props from war movies.

The museum also recognizes the sacrifices of those who endured the war, through exhibits and an honest recounting of history on the home front, from rationing to racist propaganda posters.

A newly opened Restoration Pavilion displays PT-305, a patrol boat originally crafted in New Orleans at Higgins Industries, currently being rebuilt for the permanent collection. Future additions to the museum will house even more artifacts, including two B-17s recently donated by Boeing.

The city’s recovery is visible elsewhere, including on Magazine Street, now a must-visit shopping destination west of the French Quarter. I stopped at Dirty Coast, a t-shirt boutique that spins out New Orleans-insider themed shirts, with designs that creative director Blake Haney describes as “Levels deep.” The screens look cool, sure, but to insiders, the jokes and puns run levels deeper, like on the Acadiana Self-reliance T. Haney, a New Orleans native, describes the design, which celebrates the region’s power, access to the sea and culture, as the national flag of the city–if it ever got organized enough to secede from the Union.

Haney has also launched a local news site, Humid Beings, that follows stories that wouldn’t be out of place on HBO’s Treme. (When locals watch, Haney says, there’s little surprise in the magically realist story lines since “We live this every day.”) He’s also plugged in to local music–rappers Ballzack and Odoms are favorites–and the still-nascent co-working scene, with Icehouse in Mid-City and Launchpad near Lafayette Square pioneering the way. Co-housing is starting to develop too.

Of course, New Orleans is still a drinking town, particularly when Tales of the Cocktail descends on its bars. In a nod to the event’s influence, the Times-Picayune insert, Lagniappe, published its 2011 Bar Guide on July 22, at the height of “Tales.” Most notable is the list of 11 new bars, spanning the city and filling niches still untapped. Descriptions range from “pulses with Top 40 hits” to “comfort food, rock ‘n’ roll and whiskey” to “only spot in town where you can enjoy a cocktail and a gourmet snack in a luxury movie house.” Unparalleled drinking scene indeed.

Searching for an Airboat Captain, Finding Adventure

Captain Geoff gives airboat tours of Mobile Bay, leaving from the Original Oyster House on the causeway that goes east out of town, past the retired USS Alabama. On the tours, airboaters often see alligators, birds, leaping fish and the natural beauty of the marshy flats. That is, if you can track down the mysterious captain.

Traveling the American Road – Airboating in Mobile

Most arrangements on this road trip have so far been made by smartphone, cross-referencing websites and Twitter profiles, mapping locations, making calls and sending text messages. But no matter how many times I called Geoff’s listed number, I couldn’t get through to him. In search of more information, I walked over to the local tourism office.

Two Southern gentlemen staffed the desk, and no sooner had I said “Airboat tour” than they gave a knowing “Ahhhhh.” Tourists frequently have trouble tracking down the skipper, they said, who spends a good bit of time hanging out at the Bluegill, a bar and restaurant near the Oyster House. (Promising news, I thought, a captain who carouses at local dives!) The consensus between the two: Geoff probably wasn’t answering his phone because he didn’t feel like giving tours.

Undeterred, I hopped in the car and drove out to the Oyster House. I asked the host, who hadn’t seen Geoff lately. Same with the bartender. Just before I got to Bluegill, my phone rang: It was Brittney, who works with Geoff and would like to know when I’d like to go on an airboat tour? Tomorrow, please!

In the morning, it was back to the dock, where, to my great disappointment, there were half a dozen other airboat tourists ready to go. “Are you Captain Geoff?” I asked the man in charge, wearing boots and a Boonie hat pinned up at the sides. It was, and he pointed me to my boat as I wondered how these other people made their reservations. Why didn’t I bump into them on the hunt for captain Geoff? Did they spend the previous day in Mobile on a quest that would end, anticlimactically, exactly the way it was meant to?

I didn’t have a chance to ask: The airboat ride was way too much fun.