JOPLIN, Mo. — Electrical crews hoisted power poles, small businesses opened in tents and residents snatched up construction supplies as rebuilding got underway nine days after a tornado tore through southwest Missouri. "We are open. Pray for Joplin," read a sign Tuesday outside a pharmacy offering customers free water, coffee and diabetic meters.
Cleanup from the tornado that carved a 6-mile swath through the city of about 50,000 will be expensive and environmentally delicate. Environmental officials have already warned of potential hazards, including gasoline leaks and asbestos used in the construction of old homes. But with debris removal to begin Wednesday, residents have started looking ahead.
Among the most evident signs Tuesday was the reopening of a Home Depot flattened by the 200 mph winds of the EF-5 twister. Employees in orange vests and aprons helped a steady stream of customers with sales of lumber, roofing materials and other necessities. There wasn't much to choose from yet, but Home Depot promised a 30,000-square-foot temporary building was already framed and would open within a couple of weeks.
Until then, people could pick up the most urgently needed supplies, piled on the ground and tables in the old store's parking lot.
"The products we have are what the community needs," store manager Steve Cope said. "We're trying to let people know we're not just a retail store to take their money. We're here."
It will be a long time before Joplin completely rebuilds. An estimated 8,000 homes and apartments were damaged or destroyed, along with hundreds of commercial buildings, schools, the largest hospital, power transformers and other infrastructure. But the work has begun.
Just a few blocks from where St. John's Regional Medical Center was hit, Darren Collins had already put up walls and a roof to rebuild his wife's beauty salon, Cutloose. Collins, who works as a contractor, said he wanted to get his wife's business going so he could turn his attention to the long list of jobs he has lined up elsewhere in the city. He said he hadn't anticipated what the salon's reopening would mean to so many people.
"I had one guy slam on his brakes and come over and give me a big hug and say what an inspiration it is to see somebody rebuilding," Collins said.
Residents also are anxious to get their homes back, including Scott Vorhees. The 35-year-old divorced lawyer and his two daughters weren't home when their two-story brick house on a 3-acre lot was destroyed. He's already had a contractor out and hopes to begin building a new home – "bigger and better," he said – within months.
"I just think it's important for people here to see people rebuilding," Vorhees said. "Get some momentum going. I want people in Joplin to see progress."
The rebuilding effort will get moving in earnest Wednesday, when crews will begin trucking rubble to one landfill in Lamar and two in Kansas. Gov. Jay Nixon announced the start of debris removal at a news conference Tuesday but wouldn't estimate how long it would take or what the cost would be, other than "tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars."
He said it really didn't matter: "I have been clear from the beginning: We will rebuild Joplin."
Whatever the final figure is, the federal government will pay a greater-than-usual share – 90 percent, as it agreed to do after deadly storms in Alabama in April, Nixon said. The state and local governments will share the rest.
The Environmental Protection Agency will oversee removal of hazardous debris, a delicate task since asbestos, oils, hospital waste, industrial supplies and other hazards are mixed in with everything else. EPA spokesman Chris Whitley expected that to be a massive undertaking.
With such a wide area hit, "there are estimates that there will be more waste that will come from this that will need to be pulled away than there was at the World Trade Center site after 9-11," he said.
Missouri officials have backed off releasing a death count from the tornado after realizing that, because of the violence of the storm, some sets of remains that have been found could be from the same person.
Andrea Spillars, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said 146 sets of remains were taken a temporary morgue. Investigators are using DNA tests and other scientific means to identify them. The department said in a news release Tuesday evening that next-of-kin have been notified for 123 people confirmed killed by the storm.
The list of missing, which included 232 names on Thursday, was down to 10 by Tuesday. Spillars said 144 people on the original list were removed after officials learned they were alive. A few names have been added since.
Hundreds of rescue workers from out of town joined Joplin crews in one final sweep of the damaged area Tuesday, hoping against hope to find survivors amid the rubble. City Administrator Mark Rohrs said even when debris removal begins, spotters will be on site to take one last look for survivors.
Associated Press video journalist Robert Ray contributed to this report.