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JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden praised Joplin on Friday for its "grit and determination" at the dedication of a combined high school and vocational school that replaces one destroyed by a deadly tornado more than three years ago.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Biden at the ceremony as the community marked the completion of the last of its major school rebuilding projects after the country's deadliest single tornado in decades. The 480,000-square-foot school opened Sept. 2 for more than 2,200 students and staff.
Biden said the people of Joplin were "the heart and soul of America."
The $121.5 million building features storm shelters large enough to house students and the community. It also incorporated elements from the old building, including sculptures cut out of the trees that stood on the old high school's property.
The city's school system was hit particularly hard by the May 2011 tornado that killed 161 people and flattened thousands of homes and businesses. Seven students and one employee were among the victims, including a senior who was pulled from his car by winds on his way home from attending the Joplin High School graduation ceremony. The ceremony included a moment of silence to remember the dead.
Besides the deaths, six school buildings were destroyed, including the high school. Seven others were badly damaged.
The district scrambled to rebuild with federal money, donations, insurance money and a $62 million bond issue, cobbling together a hodge-podge of temporary locations while work was underway. Seniors and juniors took classes in a converted big-box store, while freshmen and sophomores were in a building across town.
Steven Arfin, 15, of Joplin, still recalls seeing the remnants of the school after the tornado hit. "It was crazy," he said. "Words can't describe it." Now, more than three years later, the new school "means a future," he said.
As part of the dedication, students, parents and others attempted to set a world record for the longest ribbon used in a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The 6.5-mile ribbon symbolized the tornado's path through Joplin.