Joplin, Mo. Advice For Oklahomans: 'Hold On To Hope'

As Moore, Oklahoma continues to recover after this week's deadly tornado, survivors of the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado are marking the second anniversary of that disaster today. Host Michel Martin discusses Joplin's recovery, and what lessons it might hold for Oklahoma, with Joplin Mayor Melodee Colbert Kean and school superintendent C.J. Huff.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, I'll talk about how that massive Powerball jackpot last weekend made me think about all the ways Americans are winners, even if they didn't buy the golden ticket. That's in my Can I Just Tell You essay, and that's later.

But first, NPR continues to follow the aftermath of that deadly tornado in Moore, Okla., and we remembered that it's been exactly two years today since a massive EF5 tornado hit Joplin, Mo. That's the strongest-level tornado on that commonly used scale. More than 150 people died because of that tornado. It caused billions of dollars in damage.

On this anniversary, we wanted to hear how Joplin is healing and rebuilding, so we called upon Melodee Colbert Kean. She's the mayor of Joplin. Also with us, C.J. Huff. He's the superintendent of schools in Joplin.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

C.J. HUFF: Thank you for having us.

MAYOR MELODEE COLBERT KEAN: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Mayor, let me start with you. Are there any special observances today; anything that the city's doing to mark the event two years ago?

KEAN: Yes. We actually are having a citywide commemorative event today at Cunningham Park, which is the center location for the - where the tornado was the strongest and did the most damage through this area. And we're going to have, at 4:40, some special presentations in different locations throughout the park that are going to be a focus on where we're moving Joplin as we rebuild.

MARTIN: And Mayor, of course, we want to focus on the future and where you're heading. But I did want to ask if, when you heard about what happened in Moore, Okla., did that bring up bad memories for you?

KEAN: It most certainly did. And I was watching that as it unfolded on the TV, and my first thought was, my goodness, not someone else. And that's all you can feel. And then you immediately feel empathy with someone who's going through something exactly like you went through. It just - you know, and our first thought was, what can we do to give back? Because we know exactly what they were feeling.

MARTIN: Superintendent Huff, what about you? I think all of us remember the scenes at Joplin High School, where the commencement ceremonies had just been held; and now, we're hearing this very - you know, the terrible news that children were killed at one of the elementary schools in Moore, Okla. Do you mind if I ask you, what went through your mind when you heard this?

HUFF: You know, it's hard to relive that, and I honestly haven't turned on the TV to look at the images because I know what they're going through. I can feel what they're feeling and can certainly, in my own head, take myself back to that day, even two years later. So we're - certainly, our thoughts and prayers are with those people down there. And anything we can do to help them in the recovery process, we're more than willing to share. We do have an obligation to pay that forward and share what we've learned.

MARTIN: And to that end, Superintendent Huff, talk about two years later. What's going on there, with the schools?

HUFF: Well, you know, we're rebuilding buildings. And that's important from a morale standpoint, and getting our kids back to a sense of normalcy once we get out of our temporary facilities. But you know, our focus since day one - and I think we can say this is an entire community, not just the Joplin schools. This has been on taking care of our people. And from a school side, we talk about taking care of our school family, doing what we can to support one another, support our staff and in particular support our kids and our families as they recover.

So at this time our main focus continues to be on that and dealing with the mental health issues associated with that. As it stands right now, we're still servicing, even two years after the fact, about 1,400 students with post-traumatic stress disorder at varying levels, and that's going to be an ongoing challenge for the next several years, I'm afraid.

MARTIN: I understand that the teachers were trained in spotting post-traumatic stress symptoms in students. Is that right?

HUFF: That's correct. We did that work within a week or two after the storm. We got professionals in that were able to help us do that and we started summer school on time, which is an untold story, but we started summer school a couple weeks after the storm so we could start doing assessments of the children's mental health needs and starting to provide that level of support for our kids and families as we went forward.

MARTIN: Madame Mayor too, talk about the rest of the city, if you would. Could you just give us sort of an update about what's been rebuilt, what's still under construction and what's pending? What's been hardest?

KEAN: I would just actually echo off of what C.J. said because without having your whole city put together as a whole unit, then all of your city is not complete. There are a lot of things we're focusing on, of course, with economic development and getting areas of our city back built, and of course the residents, getting them back in their housing and that kind of thing.

But it is important to note that without having everyone - some place to express these feelings and to talk to people about what they've been through - because it's - and especially with the tornado down in Moore, it's a fresh and new (unintelligible) to people again. And so, as he said, we have to make sure we focus on not only rebuilding our physical structures but making sure that the mental of the people is taken care of also. And that's going to be something that we have to focus even more on as a city.

MARTIN: And in the time we have left, I was hoping I could hear from each of you if you had any advice for your colleagues in Moore as they're just beginning the journey that you've been on for the last two years. Mayor, maybe I'll start with you. I noted that you are - in fact, you've reached out to your colleagues in Oklahoma to see if you could be helpful. Is there some lesson that you've learned or something you particularly want to share?

KEAN: Just to let them know that hope is not lost. I've been kind of citing a mantra, if you will, saying that devastation doesn't last but determination does. And we're living proof of that and they will be also. It may seem bleak right now, but hold onto hope because you will come out of it.

MARTIN: Superintendent Huff, what about you? Do you have some advice for your colleagues who are just starting the process that you've been...

HUFF: Sure.

MARTIN: ...going on for the last two years?

HUFF: I think it's just important to remind everybody, it's a marathon. It's not a sprint, although right now they're running at a breakneck pace, and so, you know, just taking time to take care of themselves. You know, the people are going to be the ones that rebuild that community. The people of Moore, Oklahoma are going to do the work and they have to stay healthy, both mentally and physically and spiritually and take care of one another and work together and make the best out of a terrible situation.

MARTIN: Mayor, is there anything in particular that was helpful for people like us to do, you know, outsiders, people who don't live in the communities? What can we do at a time like this to be helpful?

KEAN: I think, of course, it's always important to send up prayers for anybody who's in distress, but I think you should find out from the officials in that city - and there are a lot of them that are posting things now - to find out what it is they need. Don't just load up and go and - you know, a lot of people mean well, but a lot of times you're hindering progress, so find out exactly what they need and then gather a point person to take, you know, one group of supplies down there if that may be what it is, or donate to your local Red Cross or different organizations like that that are immediately down there and able to help.

MARTIN: Superintendent Huff, do you mind if I ask, who's taking care of you?

HUFF: Well, I've - my family. I've got a great wife and my team and my school board. You know, we all watch out for one another and, you know, it's - again, you know, it takes everybody taking care of one another, so I've got a great support group here.

MARTIN: And what about you, Mayor? Do you mind if I ask, who's taking care of you? I know that you - I note that you were serving as vice-mayor during the tornado two years ago and now you've moved into (unintelligible) what kind of support do you get at a time like this?

KEAN: I would definitely echo what C.J. said because my family, they have sacrificed a tremendous amount of time. My church group has been constantly praying for my upkeep because it's a busy time, and so definitely that, definitely family. Family and community.

MARTIN: Is there anything else that you would want to share about this experience that people who haven't lived through it wouldn't know, Mayor?

KEAN: Just to make sure that you're prepared. If you hear sirens go off, take cover. Don't wait for a second siren. If you are listening to these weather reports, have a plan already in place so that when something does occur, you are ready. You don't have to think about someplace where you have to go. You have someplace to go. And that's the key thing. Preparation.

MARTIN: All right. I appreciate that. Thank you so much for taking the time on such a busy and complex day for you both. We really appreciate it. Melodee Colbert Kean is the mayor of Joplin, Missouri. She joined us on the line from there. C.J. Huff is a school superintendent. He joined us from his office.

Melodee Colbert Kean, C.J. Huff, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

HUFF: Thank you.

KEAN: Thank you.

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