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Civic storm brews over 'tornado tourism' in Joplin, Mo.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

An American flag stands among the debris from homes that were destroyed by a massive tornado on May 27, 2011, in Joplin, Mo.

It’s been eight months since Joplin, Mo., was devastated by a tornado, but a new storm is apparently brewing in the Midwestern city. Recently, the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) began offering a map designed to facilitate visiting the city’s most devastated places.

The maps, which combine facts on the tornado, points of twister-related interest and images of destruction, is being made available at welcome centers and hotel front desks. It offers a visual chronicle of a disaster that left 161 dead, thousands homeless and approximately 4,000 homes destroyed. (Images of the map can be seen on the Facebook page of Joplin radio station NewsTalk 1310.)

“We’re not in the market of promoting the tornado area,” Patrick Tuttle, director of the Joplin CVB, told msnbc.com “The map was the result of requests for an educational piece on the safest ways to see the amazing amount of destruction.”

“I can understand the idea of the map,” local resident Aaron DuRall told msnbc.com, “but that doesn’t make it any less tasteless.”

For DuRall, a local photographer who created an anti-tornado-tourism Facebook page called Joplin Citizens Against Tornado Tours, the issue is one of timing.

“If you’re talking two to five years down the road, where the city has been rebuilt, I could understand it,” he said. “But to want to have people view where people lost their lives less than a year afterwards seems incredibly insensitive to me.”

The controversy over the map was further fueled after local TV news station KY3 reported that the city was also planning to develop an iPhone app and bus tours of the disaster zone. An addendum to the story has Tuttle telling the station that those concepts were only ideas and that no plans are in the works.

Whether or not such concepts come to fruition, the controversy is merely the latest example of the kind of “disaster tourism” that’s given birth to everything from bus tours of post-Katrina New Orleans to post-devastation excursions to Mt. Merapi, the Indonesian volcano that killed hundreds when it erupted in 2010.

As for Joplin, both Tuttle and DuRall agree that any plans to showcase the tornado’s destruction must balance timing, the rebuilding process and the need to encourage visitation and the revenues that come with it.

“People still have not totally healed and it will take years to do so,” said Tuttle. “But we’ve got to make a decision on when to start telling the story.”  

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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