By JIM SALTER
JOPLIN, Mo. — Home Depot employees in orange vests were busy helping customers Tuesday in the parking lot of the Joplin store flattened just nine days ago by a tornado.
There wasn’t a lot to choose from just yet, but the store’s reopening and quick sales of roofing material, lumber and other necessities showed city residents’ determination to begin rebuilding quickly after the May 22 tornado that cut a 6-mile swath through the heart of this community of nearly 50,000 residents. Home Depot itself already has a 30,000-square-foot temporary building framed and expected to open within a couple of weeks. Until then, it’s selling a smaller selection of urgently needed products piled on the ground and stacked on uncovered tables in the parking lot.
“We’re trying to let people know we’re not just a retail store to take their money. We’re here,” store manager Steve Cope said.
It will be a long time before Joplin completely rebuilds from the tornado packing winds of up to 200 mph. An estimated 8,000 homes and apartments were damaged or destroyed, along with hundreds of commercial buildings, schools, the largest hospital, power transformers and other infrastructure.
But the work has already begun. Electrical crews have hoisted up new power poles in many places. Small businesses are operating out of tents or have moved to undamaged areas of town. A pharmacy’s sign read, “We are open. Pray for Joplin,” and offered free water, coffee and diabetic meters.
Workers are busily repairing roofs and rebuilding walls in industrial areas. A beauty shop leveled by the storm has a new building well under way, with framing and walls complete, an American flag hanging from a 2-by-4 out the front window.
Some residents are anxious to get their homes back, including Scott Vorhees. The 35-year-old divorced lawyer and his two daughters weren’t home when their two-story brick house on a 3-acre lot was destroyed. He’s already had a contractor out and hopes to begin building a new home — “bigger and better,” he said — within months.
“I just think it’s important for people here to see people rebuilding,” Vorhees said. “Get some momentum going. I want people in Joplin to see progress.”
Despite the scattered signs of progress, the rebuilding can’t begin in earnest until the millions of tons of debris is hauled away. City Administrator Mark Rohrs said the removal of rubble is expected to begin later this week. He would not say where it will be taken or how long the process will last.
The removal will start after a final sweep of the city by search and rescue crews, who still hope to find more survivors. Once debris removal begins, spotters will work alongside crews, checking the wreckage one last time.
The debris could contain an environmental mess, with lead, asbestos, dioxins, medical waste and other potential hazards.
“It’s going to be a massive undertaking,” Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Chris Whitley said. “There are estimates that there will be more waste that will come from this that will need to be pulled away than there was at the World Trade Center site after 9-11.”
While the World Trade Center buildings were bigger, the damage in Joplin covers a much wider area.
Gov. Jay Nixon said the federal government has agreed to pay a greater-than-usual share of the cleanup costs from the tornado. It will cover 90 percent of the debris removal, the same portion it’s paying in Alabama, where deadly tornadoes struck in April. The federal government typically covers 75 percent of the cost of disaster response, with state and local governments picking up the rest.
Missouri and city officials have backed off releasing a death count from the tornado after realizing that, because of the violence of the storm, some sets of remains that have been found could be from the same person.
Andrea Spillars, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said 146 sets of remains were taken a temporary morgue. Investigators are using DNA tests and other scientific means to identify them. Spillars said next-of-kin have been notified for 120 people confirmed dead from the storm — 19 of them on Monday.
Spillars also said 10 people remain missing. Two new names were added to the list Monday, but four people were removed once officials learned they were alive.
The temporary Home Depot will be a massive tent-like structure, but it will be climate-controlled and have most of the items stocked by a typical store. Cope said the company will move quickly to rebuild a permanent store on the site where the old one was destroyed — perhaps by the end of the year.
“The quicker we can get back up to assist the people of Joplin, the better for everyone,” Cope said.
Associated Press video journalist Robert Ray contributed to this report.