By Kevin Murphy
(Reuters) - An estimated 5,000 people participated on Tuesday in a "walk of unity" to Joplin, Missouri, along the path of a deadly tornado that tore through the city one year ago, killing 161 people.
The anniversary of the tragedy also was marked by President Barack Obama, who traveled to Joplin to give the commencement address for graduating high school seniors whose school building was obliterated by the EF-5 tornado, the strongest on a rating scale for twisters.
"Just as you have learned the goodness of people, so have you learned the power of community," Obama said. He also honored two classmates of the graduates who died in the May 22, 2011, storm.
The tornado killed 161 people and damaged or destroyed 7,500 homes. It was the deadliest U.S. tornado in more than six decades.
The walk was intended to underscore how Joplin's 50,000 residents came together with some 130,000 volunteers from many other communities to rebuild the city.
Some two-thirds of the homes destroyed in Joplin have been rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt. About 80 percent of damaged businesses have reopened, city officials said.
The walk began in the bordering community of Duquesne and ended at Cunningham Park in Joplin, where a ceremony and moment of silence was to be held at 5:41 p.m. - the time when the tornado touched down and began its 13-mile path of destruction that grew in stretches to three-quarters of a mile wide.
"It's been a great turnout," Lynn Onstot, Joplin's public information officer, said by telephone while participating in the walk. "This has been a healing process and I think people want to get on with the recovery efforts."
The unity walk included stops for groundbreaking at schools that will replace four destroyed in the tornado, including the high school.
At Cunningham Park, located in the middle of some of the worst destruction, a 161st tree was to be planted during the anniversary ceremony. Time capsules with material related to the tornado were to be buried in the park, with plans to open them on the tornado's 50th anniversary.
(Editing by Andrew Stern and Philip Barbara)