Photojournalist Eric Thayer got to Joplin, Mo., 18 hours after the devastating tornado cut a nearly mile-wide swath through the city of 50,000 on May 22, 2011, killing 161 people. He’s returned twice since then and plans to continue documenting residents’ recovery:
When I arrived it was still pretty chaotic. They were still searching for victims, and when I first arrived it was pouring rain. Everyone seemed like they were in a daze and still in shock. I hadn’t seen destruction like that since Hurricane Katrina. Standing in the middle of the neighborhood, it was destruction in every direction, as far as I could see.
I spent about a week in Joplin the first time, then went back in August to follow up with some of the people I met and photographed, to see how the recovery effort was going and to cover the first day of school. I was just back before the first anniversary, doing the same thing, following up with people and checking on the recovery process. It’s still coming along, but there are houses going up where it was only rubble, and Joplin is extremely committed to bringing back the community. There is a spirit there that is amazing to feel and see manifested in the people and their resiliency.