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Growing sense of hope in devastated Joplin

As much as people here have cried since a May 22 tornado leveled or damaged nearly 8,500 homes and businesses in Joplin, Mo., the town has a sense of hope and optimism about the future.
Lisa Dunn and her daughter Mackenzie walk away on Aug.1 from what remains of their home. It was completely destroyed in the EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. Stephanie Himango / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

The searing summer sun quickly produced beads of sweat on Lisa Dunn’s face as she and her 12-year-old daughter Mackenzie sifted through a shrine of stuff — much of it someone else’s. It had all landed on the front stoop of what used to be their home but was now a pile of ruins.

The sweat easily could have doubled as tears but didn't on this day.

As much as people in this southwest Missouri town have have cried since the May 22 tornado that leveled or damaged nearly 8,500 homes and businesses and killed 139, there is a growing sense of hope that helps sustain confidence and optimism about the future.

The difference between what I saw the last time I was in Joplin — during the first week of June — and now is stark.

Clean-up crews have removed mountains of debris that gave off the "just-been-hit" feeling no matter how much time had passed. That's a great first step in making people feel like they are making progress on the road to recovery.

We came back because that road has been, and will continue to be, rocky for lots of people. Some lost their jobs as a result of the storm. Many lost their homes or loved ones. Cruelly, some lost a combination of all three.

Reports have surfaced that one of the most basic needs — food — could become a crisis for those who depend on organizations like Ozarks Food Harvest and the 300 or so relief groups it serves. The need for donated food has doubled since the tornado but supplies are dwindling rather quickly at Food Harvest’s warehouse in Springfield.

A flower seen in a tree that was still standing in Joplin, Mo. on Aug. 1, months after the tornado decimated Joplin on May 22, 2011. The remnants of the flattened Joplin High School are visible in the distance.Stephanie Himango

Americans opened their hearts and wallets right after the storm to help folks in Joplin. No one really knew then just how much help people would need.

Lisa Dunn and her family have relied occasionally on donated food to make ends meet. Her husband, Chris, said something I found poignant and thoughtful: "I've learned from people to accept help."

I asked the Dunns whether it was tough to swallow their pride and seek the kind of help they've sought since the storm.

"How can pride step in?" Lisa said. "I never even thought about being prideful. It was survival." 

And that's what it seems people here are quite busy doing: surviving.

From the waiter who opened up to us at dinner about his close call with the tornado, and how on that very day he'd been baptized in an effort to change his life, to 12-year-old Mackenzie, who wants the country to know their lives are going to "look up, not down."

There's hope in Joplin. There's also a lot of need. And it didn't take long to see plenty of both.

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