KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The images reach into our chests and twist us to tears. Homes flipped like pancakes. Trees shredded like last month’s phone bill. People’s lives, stuffed into a snow globe and shaken, without any regard for the fallout.
The trouble is, in the weeks that follow, the cameras move on. The carnage remains. What then?
On May 22, 2011, an EF5 tornado reduced parts of Joplin to kindle. Almost a year later, 58 percent of the city’s residents living in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing — roughly six in 10 — have yet to find new homes.
“We live it day to day,” Joplin mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean said. “We know a lot of people who are on the outside looking in and they see it (as), ‘OK, it’s been a year now, you know, surely they’re fine, they’re doing OK.’ That’s not so.”
Joplin is up off the mat again, but her steps are still wobbly. There are still pieces that need picking up, fences and souls that need mending. The rebuild, like the community’s collective psyche, is a work in progress.
“A month or two later, the whole outside world kind of forgets what they go through,” Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur said Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium, where Major League Baseball, the Players Trust and State Farm announced a joint home-building project with Habitat For Humanity to assist the tornado-ravaged towns of Joplin and Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“It’s yesterday’s news story. But for people that live around here, for the people that live around Joplin, it never goes away — the memories, the pain.”
The Joplin tornado killed 161 and wreaked an estimated $2.8 billion in damage. It also hit especially close to home for Francoeur. The big right fielder spent part of two different summers in the city while in high school, as a participant in the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars in 2001 and 2002. Tourney alumni include A-listers such as the Upton brothers, Buster Posey, Zack Grienke, Clayton Kershaw, and Andrew McCutchen.
Local families would line up to house the roughly 250 visiting players every year; Francoeur remains close with his hosts, Gene and Bert Russell, to this day.
“It was one of those things where you’re talking to them, you talk to them and they haven’t even heard from their son and daughter yet,” the outfielder recalled. “They didn’t even know what was going on.”
Fortunately, the Russells, who live in Joplin’s suburbs, were spared. Many of their friends weren’t as lucky. The Royals were in Baltimore when word of the killer storm hit. Francoeur’s wife, Catie, drove down to the city with a group of players’ wives three days later.
“She tried to take a picture on her iPhone,” he said. “But she was crying too hard.”
Francoeur and Boston pitcher Daniel Bard, another Tournament of Stars alum, were the point men for Wednesday’s unveiling of 2012’s “All-Star Build” — the construction of five new homes in Joplin and four new homes in Tuscaloosa.
“I hate to say the (idea) that you’re only as popular as your next disaster, but it’s important to keep this in the forefront,” said Colbert-Kean, who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference. “It needs to stay in the forefront, because there’s going to be help needed for a long time to come.”
Habitat For Humanity has constructed 14 new homes during the past 11 months or so and hopes to finish 60 more by January. Scott Clayton, Habitat’s executive director in Joplin, said it typically takes about three months to build a home from scratch.
“We’ve got a long way to go, obviously,” he continued. “And it’s going to take all kinds of people to make this happen.”
A couple of those homes will be framed near Kauffman Stadium in the backdrop of this year’s All-Star Game, another reminder — on baseball’s biggest mid-summer stage — of how much work is yet to be done.
“Baseball is a family,” offered Tom Brasuell, MLB’s vice president for community affairs. “And families help others when they are in times of need.”