Nearly 30 percent of the buildings in Joplin, Missouri are piles of rubble and shattered glass, monuments to the ferocious tornadoes that have swept across the Midwest in recent weeks. But those heaps of debris could represent something else: opportunity.

A New York Times piece today noted how cities destroyed by natural disasters have seen an unexpected economic uplift in the jobs generated by clearing the devastation and then by reconstruction, with insurance and disaster relief funds aiding the effort. Companies in Alabama and Tennessee have already begun hiring workers to begin clearing debris.

The rebuilding process can also transform the types of jobs comprising a city's economy -- in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has seen jobs in sectors like leisure and hospitality, manufacturing and retail replaced by jobs in construction and government. A realignment could take place in Joplin, which had sought to capitalize on its stately architecture to revitalize its downtown and in doing so attracted jobs in health care and manufacturing.

More than 400 businesses have been wiped out or severely damaged in Joplin, according to Chamber of Commerce president Rob O'Brien. But O'Brien spoke of the resilience of business owners, noting in particular that the Home Depot has opened a temporary store in order to sell the lumber that will be essential to rebuilding.

A similar process is unfolding in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a town that lost some 10 percent of its businesses and suffered damage to about 7,000 buildings. USA today reported that mayor Walt Maddox swiftly convened a Rebuild Tuscaloosa Task Force and that the Chamber of Commerce has raised more than $1.3 million through a disaster relief fund. Still, Maddox is realistic about the long road ahead.

For home builders and commercial developers, this, indeed, will pull them out of the recession and provide some economic stimulus, he said. But for the next six to 12 months, it's going to overall have a negative impact on the community.

In cities across the South and the Midwest, that will entail a tortuous process of reestablishing basic services, navigating the bureaucracy of obtaining federal rebuilding grants and potentially dealing with unscrupulous insurance companies. The Oklahoma City suburb of Moore went through it a little more than a decade ago, and although the city is rebuilt and thriving City Manager Stephen Eddy has no illusions about how difficult it was to get there.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, Eddy said. That's what you do. It was pretty much crisis mode in City Hall -- normal business didn't get taken care of for several months. Normalcy? I wouldn't say for two or three years, anyway.