Residents of Joplin, Mo., have worked overtime to move debris and make a fresh start after one of the most destructive tornadoes demolished a third of the city in May. Still, many cling to what to outsiders might look like battered junk in order to keep memories of the event from slipping away.
Just after the storm, for example, Randy Brown walked away from his splintered home pushing a trashcan full of whatever he could salvage, possibly for a shrine.
"We're seeing all these broken items, and, you know, I just realized that I need to memorialize this, even if it's just for me," Brown says.
Brown has a new house now, on the other side of Joplin. In his garage, bags of clothes, and household things litter the floor, all carefully excavated from the wreck of his old place.
"It's just that it's hard to let it go. I even saved that broken lamp there," Brown says. "But now that I have it, I'm not sure why I saved it. But here it is."
He's having a hard time bringing himself to take this stuff from the garage into his new home. He doesn't even want to clean off the slurry of mud and finely ground debris that shellacked everything and everybody caught in that horrific storm.
"I've heard it called 'tornado poop' — the spatter that was whirled around, and you could see it into the side of houses, especially brick. You know, just stuck on everything. I just want to leave it there — the destroyed spattered way it looked that day," Brown says.
But most of Joplin now looks vastly different than it did "that day." Then it was a mass of sharp, heaving rubble. Now, what you see, mostly, is naked concrete slabs or barren dirt where neighborhoods used to be. The debris has largely been piled into huge, nightmarish hills, landfills where it's churned and crushed by enormous machines.
At the public works yard in Joplin, Patrick Tuttle, the guy who runs the Convention and Visitors Bureau, shows a small pile of debris a lot of respect.
"We've got superstructure from the power grid, street signs, some things from the high school," Tuttle says. "Can't go back to the landfill two years from now and dig it out, so we're putting it away."
Main Street Memories
But nobody knows what to do with it. A museum, maybe? A memorial? Art? There are cars and trucks so mangled you can't tell what they are, thick I-beams bent like noodles and a round, blue sign with old-fashioned font and a hole in the middle.
It says "Fresh Donuts," and it used to hang in front of Dude's Daylight Donuts.
"This has hung on Main Street in Joplin for long as I know," Tuttle says.
There's not much on this section of Main Street now, other than long, thin slabs of concrete.
Dude Pendergraft, 80, checks out the space that used to be home to his donut shop, now just one of those empty slabs. The tornado also destroyed his house, which was right behind his shop. Still Pendergraft is rebuilding the business, with a new, prefab building, one that will go up quick. His son, Allen Pendergraft, is in charge of getting a new sign.
"We'll try to make as close to the original as possible. Hopefully within about two or three months, it will be back shining in the night, again, I hope," Allen Pendergraft says.
And there's a lot of hope around here, a lot of backbone. But, it doesn't seem like people in Joplin want to just forget the disaster and get on with their lives so much as to come to grips with what the storm taught them about the world.
A lot of them seem to be counting on broken, splattered relics, to keep that lesson fresh.