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The road to recovery after a devastating tornado

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been more than a week since a deadly tornado touched down in Kentucky, killing at least 77 people and leaving behind millions of dollars' worth of damage. Federal and state recovery efforts have already begun, but officials say a full recovery could take years. And if there is one city that knows that all too well, it is Joplin, Mo. More than 10 years ago, one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history carved a seven-mile path of destruction through the city. The tornado in Joplin killed 161 people and became the costliest tornado in modern history. Here to talk with us about the road to recovery and lessons learned over the past ten years is Ryan Stanley, the mayor of Joplin, Mo.

Welcome.

RYAN STANLEY: Yeah. Thanks, Ailsa. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. You know, it takes years and years for a place to fully recover from a major tornado. And I'd love for you to explain the different pieces to that recovery - why it can take such an immensely long time.

STANLEY: Well, if you think about the scale of the work that we had in front of us, 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. And it took us all the way until August to get the debris cleared out. Then you start receiving kind of what you have in resources. What do we have in our coffers? What do we have coming to us from the governments? What do we have coming to from donations? And you start to assess the resources that you have. And then you have to go - and best practice, in my opinion, is go to the public. And what - 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.

CHANG: Right. I'm wondering, when you look back on that moment in your life ten years ago and on the lives of all the citizens in Joplin, how do you think this disaster has changed you - not only as individuals, but as a community?

STANLEY: Well, I think that you've got the whole community and how it's been affected as a whole, and then you have families that have all dealt with this in a different way. I had two family members that were in the tornado that were not - actually, three family members - I'm counting it in my head - that were in the tornado that were not injured. It was just they lost their stuff. And we started to realize very quickly, that's the first lesson - is it's just stuff. We can replace that. We can't replace your health. We can't replace your life, but we can replace the stuff very, very quickly. And so I think it's made Joplin appreciate more the interactions with each other more than the stuff that we have in our lives. And so I think that's one of the mental changes that have happened.

CHANG: Tell me about that. What have you seen in Joplin that has been heartening since the tornado hit 10 years ago?

STANLEY: I'm going to err on the side of omission because there's 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 that - 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 were - had a shelf life. And they were not going to survive. After 10 years, it's definitive that we were on the right path in that the hard work that we put in for those years has paid off handsomely.

CHANG: Well, if you could give one piece of advice to all the people, the officials in Kentucky right now, what at this point would you tell them to keep in mind?

STANLEY: Well, I would say the one piece of advice - I don't know if it's advice, but if it just - it does get better. You will build back. You will you 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.

CHANG: Ryan Stanley is the Mayor of Joplin, Mo.

Thank you so much for sharing your time and your stories with us.

STANLEY: It's my pleasure. Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.