Joplin, Mo., builds back stronger for the next storm

Helen Owen
Helen Owen
CBS News

(CBS News) JOPLIN, Mo. - One year ago Tuesday, a massive F-5 tornado tore a path of destruction 13 miles long through Joplin, Missouri. On the anniversary, the folks there remembered by walking the same route the tornado took and remembered the 161 who died.

They held a moment of silence at 5:41, the exact moment the tornado touched down. In the year since, Joplin has made tremendous progress rebuilding its town, but as CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy reports, it's not just building back -- it's building better.

Helen Owen spends nearly every day overseeing the construction of her new house.

"The little bedroom, I'm still going with the light blue," Owen said.

The 79-year-old has lived in Joplin all her life. She was leaving her grandson's graduation last year when the tornado leveled her home.

"There would have been no chance whatsoever of me getting out. I would have been blown to kingdom come," Owen said.

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Watch Ben Tracy's interview with Joplin High School graduate Quinton Anderson below:


Hundreds of wood frame homes are going up all over town, but Helen's will be stronger than most.

"I said, 'Concrete?' I said I don't want no concrete house. Well, the more I looked at it, I said I'd go for it," Owen said.

George van Hoesen is building Helen's and 17 other storm resistant houses in Joplin.

"You have two and a half inches of foam on either side of six inches of concrete," van Hoesen said.

The exterior walls are made with twisted metal bars and filled with concrete. They are designed to withstand winds of up to 250 miles per hour. When strong winds hit the side of a house they create an updraft that often tears the roof off, so in these homes the gables are concrete as well.

In a tornado or a hurricane, it's flying debris that causes the most deaths. To study the dangers, researchers at Texas Tech fired a two-by-four with the force of 100 mph winds at various wall types. Only concrete was impenetrable.

"The people that own these will come outside their home if there is another tornado and say, "Where's the rest of the neighborhood?'" said van Hoesen.

Not everyone can afford these homes. They cost 5 to 10 percent more. So the city of Joplin is requiring that every new home have hurricane straps -- metal bands that secure the roof to the rest of the house -- and foundations must be filled with concrete. Helen Owen is grateful for the peace of mind she's found inside her new walls.

"I'm just starting over. I may be up in age, but I can still start over," Owen said.

About 4,000 homes here in Joplin were destroyed by the tornado. Approximately two-thirds of those homeowners have taken out permits to rebuild. As for Helen, well her house is ready to go and she plans to move in this week.