Photos show Joplin’s triumphant recovery from tornado

Story highlights

iReporters revisit the scenes of Joplin destruction

The pace of recovery "gives you hope for the future," one iReporter says

Shadows and remnants of the storm remain

CNN  — 

A year since a tornado destroyed a third of Joplin, Missouri, three iReporters revisit the scenes of destruction they witnessed in May 2011 and reflect on the recovery process.

Jennifer Parr had heard the sirens and knew the tornado was coming. The college student barely made it out of town to her parents’ house before the storm touched down that Sunday.

She returned the next day to document the wreckage.

“My house is still standing, but all the windows are busted out, and my belongings have been strewn all over the house. The fencing around my yard is destroyed,” she told iReport. “My house is located in southwest Joplin, three blocks away from the hospital that took a direct hit and three blocks away from houses that were completely leveled. It’s just unreal.”

May 23, 2011: Jennifer Parr talks about the deadly tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri

After spending the past year living with her parents and grandfather, she and her dog will move into a new place next month.

Last year, she couldn’t imagine how the town would recover. Today, she says, Joplin set a standard for disaster recovery.

“The business district looks like almost as if nothing had ever happened there. It’s been really amazing how fast some of the recovery has happened,” she said. “It gives you hope for the future.”

Spirit of Joplin

Grant Deardorff was at home with his pregnant wife and year-old son just north of Joplin, hoping the predicted tornado wouldn’t strike. After they knew they were safe, “I just had a feeling I need to go to town and bring my camera and either be prepared to take pictures or help people,” he told iReport at the time.

Deardorff, a community manager for the American Cancer Society, spent the first weeks after the tornado helping remove debris and assisting friends. On nights and weekends throughout the summer, he documented the aftermath in photos, piecing together the magnitude of what had happened.

And then, for a long time, he didn’t want to look anymore.

“Quickly, it became a little too much for me emotionally,” he said. “After I was done taking the pictures, I didn’t want to think about them for a while. There was so much pain and loss.”

Then and now: Grant Deardorff’s photos from the tornado aftermath

By March, as he saw victims rebuilding and looking forward, he felt ready to revisit the area as a photographer. He compiled photos and stories from the Joplin tornado in a digital book called “The Heart of Joplin.” He plans to donate $5 from the sale of each book to two Joplin nonprofits.

Deardorff said the images of the aftermath “remind us of how much work Joplin has done to rebuild itself over the past year and how the spirit of Joplin overcame such a terrible disaster.”

Hard to go back to work

Zachary Tusinger watched the tornado move in from the roof of his apartment building. A few hours later, he learned that his aunt and uncle were killed. Many friends were without homes.

It was hard for the young attorney to go back to work after that. Sitting behind a desk just didn’t feel right, he said. Within a few months, Tusinger switched jobs to work exclusively with tornado victims as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps legal fellow with Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

As much as the town has recovered, the tornado still comes up in nearly every conversation.

“Even though we’re a year out, we’re still only a year out. There’s still a lot of shadows or remnants of what happened that day,” he said on the anniversary of the tornado. “It’s very hard to go through the day without thinking of the tornado or seeing some sign of the tornado or talking to someone that was affected by the tornado.”