02:23 - Source: CNN
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On May 22, 2011, a powerful tornado destroyed about a third of Joplin, Missouri

The twister killed 161 people

Today, much of the town is still rebuilding and students are getting ready to graduate

President Obama will speak Monday at Joplin High School's commencement

Joplin, Missouri CNN  — 

On the blank canvas left behind by last year’s tornado, new homes are slowly popping up in Joplin, Missouri. Every few blocks the buzz of power saws and the pop-pop-pop of nail guns from construction crews signal another step toward making the city whole again.

“Joplin is on the mend,” said Mayor Melodie Colbert-Kean. “We have a long road to travel, but the way that everyone is joining together and unifying and chipping in, we’re going to make it.”

What Joplin needs now

A year ago, the city suffered a direct hit by a massive EF5 tornado with wind speeds over 200 mph. The May 22 twister leveled homes and businesses, killing 161 people.

“A third of the city got pretty much destroyed by the tornado,” Colbert-Kean said. “Total devastation, a war zone, that’s what it looked like to me.”

After the search and rescue finished, the cleanup began. Most of the 3 million cubic yards of debris left by the tornado was removed in the first few months after the storm, leaving behind an eerie, treeless tableau.

After devastating tornado, Missouri hospital to be demolished

The cross from St. Mary's church, which withstood the destruction of the tornado, will soon be part of a small park.

In the middle of this destruction, the iconic cross at St. Mary’s Catholic Church still stands, giving hope to many in Joplin.

Father Justin Monaghan was in his quarters behind the church watching a golf tournament on television when the storm hit. He took shelter in his bathroom as the church and rectory were leveled.

“I was praying at a high speed,” said the priest, known to his parishioners as Father Justin. “I didn’t expect from the noise coming at me that I was going to survive in any manner. I certainly was praying, and I was just praying to ask God to accept his will.”

Monaghan moved to the United States in the 1960s, but he still speaks with a lilting Irish brogue. He has been the pastor of St. Mary’s for 12 years and has seen storms come and go, but nothing like the magnitude of last year’s tornado. When he emerged from the rubble, he saw that one of the few things still standing was the cross.

“I just looked and I thought, God is really with us, and he’s letting us know he’s going to take care of us,” he said. “It was tremendous. It was a real gift to see that and it became a symbol all over the community, in fact all over the world.”

His flock has been attending services at a neighboring church while construction begins a few miles away on the new St. Mary’s. The location of the old church will be the site of an electrical substation, but the cross will remain and become part of a small park.

iReporters share their experiences from Joplin

Monaghan said he still visits the cross many mornings to pray and meditate at dawn.

“Your God is alive and well. And we don’t always know why these things happen, but thanks for giving us a message of unity,” he prays.

The cross sits on high ground overlooking the mixed recovery in Joplin. Nearby Cunningham Park now holds a beautiful fountain and memorial to those lost in the tornado, along with basketball courts and playgrounds.

Across the street from the park is the wreckage of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which still looks much the way it did in the days immediately after the storm, with blown-out windows and collapsed walls. Demolition is under way on the heavily damaged hospital, but it is the tallest building in the area, making it impossible to forget the epic destruction the tornado brought.

A new hospital is being built on a site a few miles away.

About a mile west of St. Mary’s, the tornado hit Joplin High School, which is now a massive pile of rubble behind a chain link fence. The school district canceled the remainder of the 2011 school year and set to work trying to figure out what to do with its students when summer was over.

School officials settled on a unique solution: They would construct a temporary school in the vacant end of a shopping mall and use it for several years until a new school could be built.

After a frantic summer of planning and building, they managed to open the makeshift school on time in September 2011.

Read Joplin student’s blog post

It took the students and teachers awhile to get used to having classes in a mall, watching senior citizen mall walkers pass by the cafeteria doors during lunch. Now, as the seniors get ready for graduation, it feels like a real school.

There is an uncommon maturity to the students at Joplin High School. Two students from the school died, many others lost their homes, and all are part of a battered and bruised community.

“We get support from each other and our teachers,” explained Rachel Berryhill, an 18-year-old senior. “And it just helps us grow stronger and stronger, so I think it’s good we’re here together.”

The tornado destroyed her family’s home, along with all her possessions, including clothes and jewelry.

“I know it’s changed me a lot as a person whether I like it or not,” she said. “I don’t care as much about material possessions. Now it’s like, whatever, and it’s made me value friendships.”

She is excited to have President Obama speak at her graduation and, like many in Joplin, she doesn’t dwell on what happened here.

But, she says, when a storm approaches it’s hard to forget.

To ease students’ minds and protect them in the event of another tornado, the school has erected concrete storm shelters in the parking lot. Each student is assigned a shelter and the school holds regular drills to be sure they can evacuate in a matter of minutes.

Many Joplin residents struggle with the fear of another devastating storm striking the town. Judy Lowe lost everything in last year’s tornado, salvaging only a few photos of her sons after seeing them posted on Facebook. Today, she keeps them in a concrete-reinforced closet with a steel door.

“This is just like having a lock box, and I know that I’m not going to lose these photos again,” she said. “I can replace anything that I can go to a store and buy, but I can never replace any of these things.”

Lowe now lives in a brand-new house full of newly purchased furniture. Her neighborhood is only partly rebuilt and backhoes are as common on the streets as cars.

Work keeps her busy. She tries to not dwell on the tornado and all that she and her family have been through, but like Rachel Berryhill, she gets nervous when a storm rolls in.

“I get tense, edgy, just kind of anxious,” she said. “There’s always going to be that fear of it happening again, and my biggest struggle is trying to not show fear for my children.”

She is eager for the anniversary to come and go and for the rebuilding to be complete.

“I’m proud of Joplin. We have a long way to go,” she said. “Seeing it every day you just want it over, want it done, want it fixed. Unfortunately we’re not there yet, but we will be.”