JOPLIN, Mo. - A week ago, although it seems an eternity now, life was good for Tim Kent and his family.

A little before 6 p.m. last Sunday, he and his wife, Jan, were hauling groceries from their car when the sky turned black, a rumbling locomotive sound grew in the air, and their neighbor Jim Eason ran out on his lawn and screamed at them:

"There is rotation above your house!"

The Kents dropped their groceries. They bolted into their house and shouted for their two teenage daughters to run. Alexandra, 19, a student at the University of Missouri, grabbed the family's pet rabbit. They hit the basement just before the house they had lived in for 19 years heaved, splintered, and burst into a heap of debris.

As close as any, their house was at ground zero of one of the worst tornadoes on record, an EF5 with 200-m.p.h. winds that took at least 142 lives and more than 8,000 houses, apartments, and businesses.

When the Kents emerged and looked at the devastation around them - some houses obliterated, others sheared in half - Tim Kent, 52, an environmental engineer, knew that from that moment on everything would be different.

"It is like 9/11. There will be life before the tornado and there will be life after the tornado," he said.

What comes next? Where will Joplin be a month from now? Where can it be in a few years?

Within hours of the disaster, even as ambulances still wailed through the night, city officials stood in the justice center at a news conference and emphasized a message that would be repeated often: This city will rise from its knees.

American flags began to rise from the wreckage out of pride and resolve. Joplin's school superintendent declared that, even with four schools flattened or deemed a total loss, classes would begin on time in August.

"We will overcome this hardship," City Manager Mark Rohr said. "We will rebuild this city," Gov. Jay Nixon vowed, voicing rhetoric once heard in New Orleans and New York.

Few argue the importance of the message.

"It helps," said Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services at the Ozark Center, the mental-health arm of Freeman Health Systems, a group of three hospitals in Joplin that, within 24 hours of the tornado, reported that mental-health crisis calls had jumped from 500 a month to nearly 100 a day.

But the experiences of other tornado-ravaged towns speak to the hard work ahead. Rubble will be cleared. Houses will be rebuilt. The economy will be spurred. Communities and neighbors will be bonded tighter by shared experience.

Some also will pick up and move. With houses bulldozed, vacant lots will dot neighborhoods. The address "FEMAville" - for the thousands of displaced residents who will call Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers home for months or years - will become part of the local language.

Only days removed from the Joplin tornado, Kent and his neighbors say they are still in shock.

Countless questions weigh on their minds, but one stands out.

"The question is, 'Do I even want to live here anymore?' " said Ed McAllister, whose house was leveled. The family car lay upside down on the mound that was his house.

It is where he and Sheri, 47, raised Megan, 19; Lydia, 17; and Luke, 14. It is where their memories live: birthdays, Christmases. They recently celebrated Ed's 50th birthday with 50 people.

And yet he does not know. "Do I want to rebuild here?" he asks.