MICHELE NORRIS, host: It's been nearly four months since a massive tornado slammed into Joplin, Missouri, destroying about a third of the city. More than 500 businesses were in the direct path of the storm. Missy Shelton of member station KSMU reports that as they rebuild, business owners are finding opportunity in the wake of their tremendous losses.
MISSY SHELTON: On that Sunday night in May, the building that housed the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy in Joplin was destroyed. A safe used to store narcotics was one of the only things to survive and even it got knocked over by the powerful winds. But within two days, pharmacy owner David Starrett held the keys to a new location for his business, a building originally built for installing car phones.
DAVID STARRETT: Where we're sitting here, this was part of their garage in the back and they brought your car in. If you go outside, you can see they've stuccoed in the two doors. Most recently there was a cellular company that had moved from here just two weeks prior. So it was just - had gone on the market.
SHELTON: To convert this space into a pharmacy, donated shelves arrived from a pharmacist more than three hours away and volunteers pitched in, allowing David Starrett to fill prescriptions from his new location less than one week after the tornado struck.
He says the new location has brought him some new opportunities, even though many of his previous customers left town.
STARRETT: We've had 75, 80 families being displaced. I mean, they've had to move to Neosho, Springfield, Carthage, places where they can't use me. And that's fine but the positive thing about our new location is we've had new faces. Even though I'm just a mile south of where I was, I've gained more than I lost.
SHELTON: The 525 businesses in the storm's path included some big box retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart and some mom and pop stores. A major hospital was also decimated.
Rob O'Brian is president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, and says he expects more than 400 of the businesses to reopen by the end of this year. He said the international news coverage of the tornado and Joplin's quick response are helping attract businesses to the area.
ROB O'BRIAN: We've heard from many of them that they see that as a big plus. It's a big difference when they know that that can-do attitude can kick in, even in the face of a severe natural disaster.
SHELTON: I'm standing here along 26th Street in Joplin, Missouri. As I look to the west, I can see an open, littered field and, off in the distance, the hulking remains of St. John's Hospital. Now, to the east, there's an elementary school - it's still standing but is in shambles. Immediately to my south is a brand new brick building. It's the new home of Cut Loose, a hair salon. The original building on this site was destroyed when the May 22nd tornado ripped through this part of the city.
DIANA COLLINS: It's amazing some of the things that we lost, including a brick building and washer and dryer, but we did recover fingernail polish.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHELTON: Diana Collins owns Cut Loose. After the tornado, she and her staff traded scissors for saws to cut up limbs and other debris covering their salon. By July 1st, they were cutting hair in a new building on the old foundation, complete with a new floor plan and some much needed upgrades.
A full comeback may take some time, even though there's now a multimillion-dollar private fund that's offering no interest and low interest loans for new and expanding businesses. The new hospital isn't scheduled to open until 2014. So even though most Joplin businesses reopened quickly, there are still some major players in the process of rebuilding.
That means that even with the opportunities, there are challenges and the community may have to wait before they see a lasting economic recovery.
For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton.
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