ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
JOPLIN, Mo. — Eight months after a tornado laid waste to much of this city, Joplin is wrestling with an emotional question: Should the community market its devastated neighborhoods to tourists?
When the convention and visitors bureau recently discussed offering guided bus tours and even a smartphone app, storm victims bristled, imagining that their shattered homes could be put on display for legions of curious sightseers.
But the bureau director says he wants to promote Joplin’s recovery to outsiders, insisting that the effort is “not about busted-up homes or destroyed cars or body parts.”
Signs of revival are slowly emerging from the ruins left by the May 22 tornado, which killed 161 people. Debris has been cleared, and Home Depot and other stores have rebuilt. Hundreds of construction permits have been issued, too.
Yet the new houses and stores are vastly outnumbered by empty lots and the concrete foundations that in many areas were all that survived the twister.
So when a local television report raised the possibility that tourist buses could be allowed to crawl through neighborhoods leveled by one of the deadliest tornados in American history, people swiftly responded with angry calls and emails.
“As a family member who lost a loved one to this disaster, I find the whole subject insulting,” said Candyce Patterson, whose fianci’s grandmother — the woman who raised him — died in the tornado. “It is appalling to us that the CVB would even consider this.”
Bureau Director Patrick Tuttle said the proposal for disaster tours was only an idea, and it was rejected. It was merely a response to information requests from travelers, particularly those who passed through on Interstate 44 and stopped at a Missouri welcome center.
Instead, the city printed a map showing the tornado’s path and including a history of Joplin, a list of tornado-related facts and a welcome message.
“Enough outsiders want to know. You have to give them something,” Tuttle said. “This is about recovery, about what we’ve done to get this city back.”
Still, the backlash highlights the challenges faced by many communities that have endured major disasters: They cannot ignore interest in the events, but calling too much attention to the scarred landscape and human suffering could be seen as exploitative, insensitive or cruel.
It’s a debate that resonates from New Orleans, where tour companies continue to offer Hurricane Katrina bus tours, to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which is expected to attract visitors from the many soccer fans attending the Euro 2012 tournament later this year in Ukraine.
In Joplin’s handout, City Manager Mark Rohr encourages tourists not merely to look at the damage but to help out — and spend money.
“Although we realize there is interest in what Joplin has been through, the real story is how we responded to the adversity we faced,” he wrote. “We invite you to learn more about our experiences” and eat at a restaurant, visit some downtown shops or book a night at a hotel.
“These simple actions support jobs and provide stability for our residents and business owners,” Rohr said.
The single-sheet guide lists the locations of some “iconic” images of May 22, including Joplin High School and St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which were both destroyed.
Local photographer Aaron DuRall created the Facebook page “Joplin Citizens Against Tornado Tours.”
“We must speak out against tasteless ventures such as these,” he wrote. “Not only do they cast Joplin in a bad light, but they cheapen what each of us experienced. ... What is left of people’s former lives is not something to marvel at, nor is it something to profit from.”
Even before tornado, the city had been planning to update its tourism campaign. Then the storm became one of the new themes. During a recent visit to the state capital, a delegation of business leaders unveiled a similar message aimed at trade associations.
“Revisit Joplin. Join the recovery. Be a part of the miracle of the human spirit,” one poster reads, noting the support the city received from more than 117,000 volunteers. “Our hotels, attractions and meeting facilities are open and ready to host your next meeting.”
When Tuttle presented his preferred marketing firm to the Joplin City Council for approval, he emphasized the company’s experience in disaster tourism in Louisiana. But the campaign will stick mostly to local history such as Joplin’s legacy as a center of lead and zinc mining and its location on the famous Route 66.
“Our emphasis is on attractions and annual events,” said Kevin McInerney, vice president of sales for Kansas City-based Propaganda Communications, the city’s newly hired marketing firm. “The tornado happened. Everybody in the country knows that.”
Still, Joplin could also use the opportunity to market itself to youth sports tournaments, church groups, civic clubs and other organizations looking to combine their events with volunteer projects.
“It may be that some people came to help with the immediate tragedy. We’d like to encourage them to revisit and to come back to see some of the successes, and to potentially lend a helping hand to continue to rebuild,” said Katie Steel Danner, director of the Missouri Division of Tourism.
“People now know the location of Joplin. Before, they may not have even been aware.”
Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitjoplinmo.com
Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter: (at)azagier