JOPLIN, Mo. — President Obama returned to Joplin Monday one year after a tornado ravaged the city, praising residents for overcoming historic adversity through the human spirit to succeed.
He said the community and its restoration success are a model for a nation stuggling to recover from difficult economic times.
"You are the source of inspiration to me, to this state, to this country and to people all over the world," the president told the high school commencement on the anniversary eve of the tornado that killed 161 and destroyed one-third of Joplin.
"America only succeeds if we all pitch in and pull together -- and I'm counting on you to be leaders in that effort."
Obama told the 431 graduates they had "already defied the odds" of a natural disaster that destroyed their school, and that they should remember the generosity offered their community from across the nation in the aftermath of the tornado.
"There are so many good people in the world," he said. "There is such a decency, a bigness of spirit, in this country of ours. So class of 2012, you've got to remember that."
A year ago, the tornado struck Joplin an hour after high school commencement at Missouri Southern State University. One 2011 graduate died in the tornado, as did a member of the 2012 class. The high school was destroyed, requiring students to study in a vacant warehouse converted to classrooms.
But Tuesday the city broke ground on a new high school and two other schools scheduled to open in 2014, symbols of the revitalized Joplin.
Sabrina Duncan graduated the day of the tornado, and lived to tell about it when she and family members huddled in their car outside the local Wal-Mart, where they had gone to pick up a cake only to find it locked down.