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Talk of 'tornado tourism' stirs Joplin's anger

FILE - This Jan. 18, 2012, file photo shows an inspirational sign at an intersection in a neighborhood which was destroyed nearly eight months ago by an EF-5 tornado that tore through in Joplin, Mo. When a recent TV report revealed that the convention and visitors' bureau had considered offering guided bus tours and even a smartphone app, storm victims bristled as the city wrestles with an emotional question: Should the community market its devastated neighborhoods to tourists? (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

FILE - This Jan. 18, 2012, file photo shows an inspirational sign at an intersection in a neighborhood which was destroyed nearly eight months ago by an EF-5 tornado that tore through in Joplin, Mo. When a recent TV report revealed that the convention and visitors' bureau had considered offering guided bus tours and even a smartphone app, storm victims bristled as the city wrestles with an emotional question: Should the community market its devastated neighborhoods to tourists? (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

JOPLIN, Mo. -- Eight months after a tornado laid waste to much of this city, Joplin is wrestling with an emotional question: Should the community market its devastated neighborhoods to tourists?

When the convention and visitors bureau recently discussed offering guided bus tours and even a smartphone app, storm victims bristled, imagining that their shattered homes could be put on display for legions of curious sightseers.

But the bureau director says he wants to promote Joplin's recovery to outsiders, insisting that the effort is "not about busted-up homes or destroyed cars or body parts."

Signs of revival are slowly emerging from the ruins left by the May 22 tornado, which killed 161 people. Debris has been cleared, and Home Depot and other stores have rebuilt. Hundreds of construction permits have been issued, too.

Yet the new houses and stores are vastly outnumbered by empty lots and the concrete foundations that in many areas were all that survived the twister.

So when a local television report raised the possibility that tourist buses could be allowed to crawl through neighborhoods leveled by one of the deadliest tornados in American history, people swiftly responded with angry calls and emails.

"As a family member who lost a loved one to this disaster, I find the whole subject insulting," said Candyce Patterson, whose fiance's grandmother -- the woman who raised him -- died in the tornado. "It is appalling to us that the CVB would even consider this."

Bureau Director Patrick Tuttle said the proposal for disaster tours was only an idea, and it was rejected. It was merely a response to information requests from travelers, particularly those who passed through on Interstate 44 and stopped at a Missouri welcome center.

Instead, the city printed a map showing the tornado's path and including a history of Joplin, a list of tornado-related facts and a welcome message.

Still, the backlash highlights the challenges faced by many communities that have endured major disasters: They cannot ignore interest in the events, but calling too much attention to the scarred landscape and human suffering could be seen as exploitative, insensitive or cruel.

In Joplin's handout, City Manager Mark Rohr encourages tourists not merely to look at the damage but to help out -- and spend money.

"Although we realize there is interest in what Joplin has been through, the real story is how we responded to the adversity we faced," he wrote. "We invite you to learn more about our experiences" and eat at a restaurant, visit some downtown shops or book a night at a hotel."