Joplin Commemorates Anniversary of Deadly Tornado

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 8, 2012, a tattered flag shows a years worth of wear as it hangs from the remains of a destroyed home in Joplin, Mo. Reconstruction continues in the community as the anniversary of an EF-5 tornado that destroyed a large swath of the city and killed 161 people approaches on May, 22. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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By Lauren Peikoff

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Malachi Murdock doesn't remember the massive tornado that struck Joplin a year ago Tuesday, killing 161 people and nearly killing him.

The 17-year-old was on stage after a performance at the Stained Glass Theater when the twister shredded the building. Three of those inside were killed. Murdock was hit in the jaw by debris and injured so badly his parents initially didn't recognize him at a hospital hours later.

Murdock, now a college freshman, plans to dedicate his life to helping others as a counselor and youth minister — a decision borne from the suffering he saw in the aftermath of the May 22, 2011, tornado. He and Gov. Jay Nixon were among those at a sunrise service Tuesday at Freeman Hospital to honor the hospital and emergency workers who sprang into action that night — the first in a day of solemn events to mark the anniversary of the tragedy and the city's rebirth.

"I've been blessed with a loss of memory of this event," he said. "If I remembered, I'd probably be going through the same trauma a lot of these people are."

Freeman was overrun with Joplin's bloodied and battered that night because the city's other hospital, St. John's Regional Medical Center, was destroyed — one of thousands of Joplin buildings damaged or laid to ruin that night. St. John's has been operating out of temporary facilities while construction continues at its new permanent location, where it will reopen under the name Mercy Hospital Joplin.

The city held the first of three groundbreaking ceremonies Tuesday for new schools at a site in the shadow of St. John's former home on land donated by the Sisters of Mercy Health System. An elementary school will be built at the site to replace two that were destroyed. The community theater will be rebuilt nearby.

"It's been a roller-coaster type year. Extremely high highs and lots of low lows." said Debbie Fort, the principal of Erving Elementary School, which has been operating out of temporary facilities and which will be the name of the new school.

"It's important that we take a moment to reflect and remember," she said. "But it's a new chapter in our lives. This really signifies our future, the future of Joplin."

A groundbreaking ceremony was planned for later Tuesday for Joplin High School, which was also destroyed by the nation's deadliest tornado in six decades.

A 4-mile unity walk through some of the city's hardest hit neighborhoods begins at 2 p.m. in neighboring Duquesne, where more than one-fourth of the community's 750 homes were destroyed and nine people died. The Joplin portion of the walk begins past a Wal-Mart where 200 people survived the storm by huddling together in employee break rooms, bathrooms and other designated safe zones. Three people, though, were killed inside that store.

The walk will conclude with a moment of silence at Cunningham Park at 5:41 p.m., the precise time when the EF-5 tornado packing 200 mph winds hit Joplin. The city park, which is across the street from the hulking remains of the St. John's hospital, has since been rebuilt.

While many of Tuesday's events will reflect upon the past year, community leaders are also looking ahead toward what is bound to be a long recovery effort.

In January, elected officials and other members of a 45-person recovery committee endorsed a long-term recovery plan that calls for the creation of four new business districts that would allow residents to live and shop nearby and a unified approach to rebuilding that ensures new construction meets certain design standards.

In March, the city hired Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, of Sugar Land, Texas, as its "master developer" to oversee the rebuilding plan.

The day's events are also expected to attract some of the more than 130,000 volunteers who descended on southwest Missouri from across the country to help out. That group includes a contingent of bicyclists who left New York City's Central Park nearly three weeks ago on a Cycle for Joplin fundraising ride organized by a group of former Joplin residents known as the Joplin Expats.

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