President Obama will address Joplin High School’s graduating seniors in southwest Missouri late Monday, marking the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that destroyed an enormous path through the city and claimed 160 lives.
It was graduation night on May 22, 2011, too, when Joplin High School and more than 7,500 other buildings were destroyed by what has proven to be among the deadliest and costliest tornadoes in United States history. The EF5-rated storm was more than a mile wide and packed winds of more than 200 miles per hour. In Joplin and nearby Duquesne, the storm reduced schools, hospitals, businesses and homes to giant swaths of torn lumber and rubble.
Obama is expected to commemorate the losses as well as celebrate the success of the recovery effort so far in Joplin, where a temporary high school was set up at a local mall in time for the start of the 2011-12 school year. Temporary housing has been provided to more than 500 families; more than $60 million in federal loans and grants has been made available to individuals and businesses to rebuild; and nearly $150 million will be spent to help rebuild public infrastructure.
In addition, Missouri state officials and insurance experts have estimated that insurance payouts will exceed $2.2 billion, making the Joplin storm among the costliest tornadoes in U.S. history.
Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the biggest priorities for the federal government were helping state and local agencies remove debris, providing temporary housing and reopening schools.
Fugate said that although the scale of damage from the tornado was much smaller than Hurricane Katrina, one lesson learned from that storm was the need for the federal government to respond quickly and make sure federal resources flow immediately. Another lesson learned, he said, is ensuring that virtually as soon as displaced residents are put in temporary housing, a plan is in place to move them on to permanent shelter.
With temporary federal housing assistance due to expire for many residents in six months, Fugate said a particular emphasis is helping local authorities develop permanent, low-cost housing for displaced residents with low or fixed incomes.
“Our goal is to get them a place to stay that’s longer term,” Fugate said.
The many 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 seen tossed across a band room, and lunch tables careen across the cafeteria before the building’s ceiling seems to cave 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. Norton’s family’s search for their son drew nationwide attention, but a week later he was found dead.
Last year was the second-deadliest year for tornadoes in U.S. history, with storms hitting across the midwest and deep south throughout April and May. In all, more than 500 died.
Obama’s visit to Joplin comes at the end of a busy weekend in which he hosted G-8 leaders at Camp David to address the European economic crisis and then flew to Chicago to participate in a NATO summit at which leaders spent two days planning out the conclusion of the alliance’s combat role in Afghanistan by 2014.
Missouri is not unfamiliar territory for Obama, who spoke to the people of Joplin a week after last year’s tornado touched down.
Obama also devoted significant resources to Missouri during the 2008 presidential election, losing the state to Sen. John McCain by fewer than 4,000 votes — less than two-tenths of a percentage point — and making Missouri most the closely contested state in the nation that year.
It is unclear whether the president will devote the same measure of resources in Missouri for his re-election campaign this year.
Missouri is widely seen to have tacked to the right since Obama’s election in 2008. His approval rating there lagged behind his national average by just one point in 2009, but by last year it had dipped to 39 percent, five points behind the national average, according to Gallup.
The president opened more than 40 campaign offices in Missouri four years ago. This year, so far, he has two, according to the campaign’s Web site.