Obama visits Joplin one year after tornado, speaks at high school commencement

President Obama took a break from the world stage and the campaign trail late Monday to heap praise on this southwestern Missouri city a year after a giant tornado cut a deadly path through the area, claiming 161 lives.

Obama told graduating seniors of Joplin High School that their story of loss and resilience is an American story — of community, kindness and generosity in which people’s best instincts triumph over greed.

“As you take on the roles of colleague and neighbor and citizen, you will encounter all kinds of divisions between groups — divisions of race and religion and ideology,” the president said. “But you are from Joplin. So you will know that it’s always possible for a community to come together when it matters most.”

It was graduation night on May 22, 2011, too, when Joplin High School and more than 7,500 other buildings were destroyed by one of the deadliest and costliest tornadoes in U.S. history. The storm was a mile wide and packed winds of more than 200 mph. In Joplin and nearby Duquesne, the storm reduced schools, businesses and homes to giant swaths of lumber and rubble.

On-the-scene videos that surfaced in the days after the Joplin tornado tell the tale of the storm’s power. One compilation of security-camera footage from inside Joplin High School shows a darkened and empty complex suddenly jarred to life by roaring winds and falling debris. Music stands are tossed across a band room, and lunch tables careen across the cafeteria before the building’s ceiling caves in.

There were also heartbreaking stories of loss, among them the fate of Will Norton, sucked out of his father’s car on the way home from his high school graduation. A week later he was found dead. In all, seven Joplin students were among those killed.

A year later, the recovery still has a long way to go in this city of 50,000. Hundreds remain in temporary housing. Gnarled and half-bare trees stand alone where they once shaded houses. Concrete pads lie where churches stood, and vinyl banners flap in the wind, directing worshipers to temporary quarters. Joplin High School is a giant pile of debris, the building finally demolished this year to make way for its replacement.

But the school is a symbol of the accomplishments, too. Although the building was lost, officials were able to open a makeshift replacement in time for the 2011-12 school year to keep the students from scattering to surrounding schools. Along the construction fence that encloses the school property, dozens of painted wooden butterflies and stars bear messages such as “Faith,” “Hope” and “U.S.A.”

“Teachers worked extra hours, and coaches improvised,” Obama told a crowd of about 4,600 packed into the gymnasium of Missouri Southern State University. “The mall was turned into classrooms, and the food court became a cafeteria — which sounds like a bit of an improvement. Sure, the arrangements might have been a little noisy and a little improvised, but you hunkered down and you made it work. Together.”

Said Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff, “This class, quite simply, has been amazing.”

Obama also celebrated the generosity of others, including the 50,000 who came from across the country to help Joplin rebuild.

Obama was joined at the graduation by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D). The president left politics and policy behind at his previous stop, Chicago, where earlier Monday he wrapped up a NATO summit focused on the drawdown in Afghanistan — and where, during a news conference, he defended his reelection campaign’s attacks on Republican Mitt Romney’s years as a private equity manager at Bain Capital.

In Joplin, meanwhile, Obama spoke of harnessing the same spirit that possessed this city over the past year to “help rebuild America.”

“You are from Joplin,” he said. “You are from America. And no matter how tough times get, you will be tougher. No matter what life throws at you, you will be ready. You will not be defined by the difficulties you face but how you respond — with strength, and grace, and a commitment to others.”

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