GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz. On this Thanksgiving, we return to two sites of disaster and rebuilding. In May, a tornado destroyed much of Joplin, Missouri. A hundred and sixty-one people were killed, 7,500 homes were wrecked. And then, in August, Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast and flooded entire towns. We go first to Joplin, and Frank Morris of member station KCUR. He found many residents struggling to recover but grateful for what the storm did not take, and even for what it gave them.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: When the tornado ripped through Joplin, Carrie Cook and her two young sons - with their dark hair, full cheeks and soft features - were in the way. They escaped their apartment just in time. The twister obliterated it and almost everything inside. Cook stands in a construction site recalling her losses - heirlooms, kid art, a ring Cook's parents gave to her as a girl.
CARRIE COOK: It had a diamond from my grandmother, who passed away when I was 6 years old. And those don't make me who I am, it was just a reminder.
MORRIS: Like a lot of people here, Cook didn't have much money or carry much insurance. So the storm wiped out not just mementos, but accumulated wealth.
COOK: And I kept thinking I was just going to be living with my mom in a two-bedroom house, indefinitely, with two little boys. And it was hard not to get depressed about it. I kept saying, you know, the boys are my rock, and I am their rock, and I just wouldn't succumb to the depression.
MORRIS: But Cook was in for another sweeping change. You see, this construction site - it's hers.
COOK: That's my new kitchen. This is my new living room. I'm excited. I got to lay some of the floor today.
MORRIS: Cook's small house is one of 10 Habitat for Humanity's putting up here this month. Outside, treeless lots, tornado-blasted ruins and construction sites stretch for miles. Inside, though, everything's bright and new. It smells of fresh paint, and the Christmas tree is up early.
COOK: Absolutely, you know, this year we're not waiting. We're just looking forward to the future and happy times.
MORRIS: But Cook's radiant gratitude and optimism are strained by the suffering that seems to permeate Joplin.
PATRICIA MCGREGOR: Well, if you lost your spouse and your children, if you lost your home and you don't have any of the memorabilia or the things that you use to help define yourself, what do you do with your life?
MORRIS: Patricia McGregor is a psychologist here and says that for many, Thanksgiving only makes things worse. Calls to Joplin's counseling centers are up.
MCGREGOR: People who are saying, I can't stand the thought of the holidays. I just don't want to see them.
MORRIS: Even the most resilient and grateful tornado survivors live with pain.
JUDY SPURGEON: Every day you find something that you wish you had.
MORRIS: Judy Spurgeon thanks God she survived and it was close. But the tornado destroyed just about all her stuff, and that hit hard the first time she tried to make her mom a pie.
SPURGEON: And the pie filling scorched because it wasn't my pan that I always used. Well, I threw the pan into the sink and I started crying. And I said, all I want is my life back the way it was. I want my furniture, my clothes, you know, my appliances and everything back.
MORRIS: Most tornado victims do, but not all of them.
MARTHA GOLDMAN: I would say that we were handed this amazing gift.
MORRIS: Martha Goldman and her boyfriend could easily have been killed. They're both in their early 30s and were home, huddled in a closet as the storm ripped up their rented house, scattering the books, records, art and vintage furniture they'd packed into it. No insurance. But Goldman tries to laugh it off.
GOLDMAN: So when we realized we're missing something, oh, yeah, I used to have that - used to. We kinda do the wa-wa, you know. It seems to be a better way of dealing with it and then, you know, you move on.
MORRIS: But then storm dispersed them. Ian Coday, Goldman's boyfriend, crashed with friends and kept working in Joplin while Martha moved in with her folks, three hours away. It was a sad and confusing summer. But Coday says it clarified their priorities.
IAN CODAY: Strangely enough, the disarray that everything - that the tornado threw everything out of order, it made our story clear up.
MORRIS: With backing from their friends and parents, they decided to go for it, live a dream and buy a farm. Now, they're fixing up this place, a plain little old farmhouse just outside Joplin. Goldman's already slathered the kitchen with bright turquoise, lime and pink paint. Come spring, they plan to start planting fruit trees on their 10 acres of rocky pasture.
CODAY: It won't be tomorrow, but hopefully someday I'll have a little truck farm, you know, and truck some fresh produce up to Kansas City every once in a while. That's kind of a dream, you know.
MORRIS: For many people in Joplin, this Thanksgiving is going to be one more to endure than to celebrate. But new dreams are taking root in the rocky soil here and while the losses have been terrible, they've left a lot of people here more grateful to be alive than they were last Thanksgiving. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.