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Somber Joplin recalls victims of '11 tornado

Carrying small American flags and wearing T-shirts bearing the names of friends and loved ones who died when a massive tornado tore through Joplin one year ago, thousands of people made a somber march Tuesday through some of the town's hardest-hit neighborhoods.

Residents and officials are dedicated to remembering their losses but are also committed to what is certain to be a long, slow recovery from a tornado that killed 161 people and injured hundreds of others.

The storm last May wiped away entire neighborhoods in the city of 50,000, destroyed Joplin's only public high school and left behind a ghastly moonscape of block after city block of foundations wiped clean of their structures.

"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.

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

Signs of the challenges ahead were plentiful on the 4-mile "Walk of Unity," from the glaring absence of century-old trees in the city's central neighborhoods to the ghostly shell of St. John's Regional Medical Center, which formed a stark backdrop at a late-afternoon memorial service marked by a moment of silence at 5:41 p.m. -- the exact time the tornado hit.

"There is not a handbook out there that says, 'Here's how you develop a community that has an 8-mile-long, 25- to 30-city-block-wide swath of area that has basically lost everything,' " said David Wallace, a Texas developer whose firm was hired by the city to oversee Joplin's rebuilding plan.

He estimated the recovery will cost nearly $2 billion, about half of which has already been pledged by private sources.

Throughout the day, residents, hospital workers, volunteers and politicians gathered across the disaster zone to mark the May 22, 2011, tornado, mixing somber remembrances with steely resolutions to rebuild.

"It is so fitting to begin this day, this anniversary, by reflecting on our faith as dawn breaks over a renewed Joplin," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said at a sunrise service at Freeman Hospital, which is eight blocks from St. John's but was undamaged.

The afternoon procession started 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 began past a Walmart where three people were killed and 200 survived by huddling together in employee break rooms, bathrooms and other designated safe zones.

City officials estimated the number of people who took part in the somber walk at 5,000 to 6,000. They ended at Cunningham Park, which has been rebuilt and is across the street from what is left of the St. John's hospital.

The unity walk made several stops, including a groundbreaking ceremony for the rebuilt Joplin High. Juniors and seniors will spend the next two years attending school in a converted department store in the city's sole shopping mall.

"The sound of hammers has replaced the sound of sirens," said C.J. Huff, Joplin's school superintendent.