By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Three new schools will open in Joplin, Missouri, this week, the latest step in the town's recovery from a devastating 2011 tornado that killed 161 people and destroyed 8,000 buildings.
The tornado that hit Joplin on May 22, 2011, was the single deadliest in the United States since records were first kept in 1950, according to federal agencies that track storm impacts.
"Milestones are important in the road to recovery and this certainly is a big one for us," said C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin schools. "We have worked hard to get to this point."
About 1,450 students, who have been attending classes in temporary buildings since the storm, will move to two new elementary schools - Irving Elementary and Soaring Heights Elementary - as well as to East Middle School, Huff said. The openings were due on Monday, but all Joplin schools will be closed due to cold weather.
Joplin's new high school will open next fall to replace the school demolished in the tornado. The students are now in a former store adjacent to a shopping mall.
Five schools were destroyed and four others were damaged by the tornado, according to school officials.
All of Joplin's schools have been outfitted with safe rooms, where students and staff can take refuge in case of a tornado, Huff said.
"We said early on that we were going to build back bigger and better than before the storm, and the new schools are example of that," Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said.
Rohr said 90 percent of the 7,500 homes and 500 commercial buildings destroyed in the tornado have been replaced. The three new schools cost $65 million, and were funded mostly through insurance and a bond issue voters approved in April 2012.
Seven students and a staff member of the school district were among those who died after the tornado struck on a Sunday afternoon.
(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Edith Honan and Jeffrey Benkoe)