JOPLIN, Mo. » As this rebuilding city races to finish clearing the rubble from the deadly tornado last spring, one irreparably broken structure has been allowed, for now at least, to remain.
The building, a modest red brick house, has no roof. All but one of its exterior walls are missing, splintered and scattered by the storm, leaving an impression of a giant dollhouse. A Christmas tree, dressed in ornaments, has been placed in a tidy living room arrangement of two couches and a coffee table.
The reason this house has so far survived the wrecking ball can be found scribbled on its walls, on its floorboards, in its closets and along virtually every other remaining surface. They are personal messages, thousands of them, handwritten by the volunteers who flooded the community to help sift through and cart out the debris. Every day visitors and locals alike stop to add a note to the collection.
Every disaster has its memorials, from the organic to the carefully orchestrated. Several monuments have emerged here as the city labors to clear the remaining rubble of the tornado that cut through the heart of the community on May 22, killing 161 people. But as that effort nears completion, the community is questioning what to do with a memorial that is itself rubble.
City leaders have been discussing whether to move the whole structure or perhaps simply take parts of the building for public display. "We think there is some value to preserving it," said Mark Rohr, the city manager. "But we can’t let it sit there forever."
In the meantime, the walls of the building, known here as the volunteer house, are peeling under the assault of sun and rain and wind. Like a love letter slowly torn to pieces, the peeling paint is littering the floorboards with snippets of messages, often just a few letters, a name or a word, like "home," "rebuild" and "alone." In the newly barren patches, more messages are being scrawled.
The serendipity of the monument stands in sharp contrast with the deliberate stone and steel structures put up in nearby Cunningham Park. The first structure is a three-tiered fountain with 5, 22 and 11 streams of water on the different levels to symbolize the date of the storm. The second is an enormous metal replica of the rubber wristbands handed out to volunteers, emblazoned with the message "The Miracle of the Human Spirit." A third one honoring relief workers is planned.
These are the official memorials, the ones visited this month by a collection of men in suits who had gathered for the announcement that a company had donated $25,000 to the park. At the end of that ceremony, a man dressed as Santa emerged to present the assembled politicians, including the governor, with a giant check and to pose for photos. "Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas, everyone," he said, "And thank you, Coca-Cola."
Throughout Joplin, it is hard to miss the signs and sounds of progress. New houses and businesses have emerged on the flattened landscape. Plans to replace the destroyed high school and hospital are moving forward. And though many are still struggling, the feared exodus has not begun.
That progress, city leaders have said repeatedly, could not have happened without the assistance of volunteers. Nearly 115,000 volunteers, from every state, have registered with the city since the storm, and perhaps as many simply showed up and started helping.
This was what Tim Bartow, the owner of the house, was responding to when he wrote a message of thanks to the volunteers who lent their hands and backs to the hard, messy work of clearing the rubble. Bartow, who rode out the storm with his family in the basement, spray painted it in large letters on the side of the home: "You are our heroes."
Then he cleared space in the house for the storm-damaged furniture, which had been strewn over several blocks, so that volunteers would have a place to rest. After a while, the volunteers started writing messages of their own, offering love from Georgia and prayers from Texas. Now many make a point of stopping here before they leave the community.
Some just signed their names, but the more expansive recited Scripture or offered words of support. The sentiments expressed are hardly unusual, reminding that in moments of tragedy, people seek comfort in the worn truths underlying cliches.
"The human heart, even after this," reads one message written on the kitchen floor, each letter on a different tile, "remains stronger than this very ground."
The foundation of the house, in truth, is crumbling, Bartow said. But he has decided to leave the house up until city leaders decide on the question of preservation.
Patrick Tuttle, director of the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the decision would be made soon because cleanup deadlines were looming. "Whether we take part of it or all of it is the question," he said.
Then, whatever remains will be torn down so the property can be sold as an empty lot.
For now, though, the house stands, oddly resilient to the deconstructive power of the storm and the constructive power of the rebuilding city, speaking to a moment in between that will be harder to explain when it is gone.