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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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)
But, here at the Public Works yard in Joplin, Patrick Tuttle, the guy who runs the Convention and Visitors Bureau, shows this small pile of debris a lot of respect. Mr. 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?
Mr. 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: There's not much on this section of Main Street now, other than long, thin slabs, and, today, a lean old man in a blue cap.
Are you the Dude?
Mr. DUDE PENDERGRAFT: I'm the Dude.
MORRIS: How you doing?
Mr. PENDERGRAFT: Well, I'm walking on top.
MORRIS: Dude Pendergraft is 80, and spry.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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: 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 about the disaster, and get on with their lives, so much has to come to grips with what the storm taught them about the world. And a lot of them seem to be counting on broken, splattered relics to keep that lesson fresh.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.