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How Joplin Came Back from Tornado Devastation

In 2011, one of the deadliest tornadoes in US history ripped through Joplin, Missouri. Thanks to rebuilding efforts, the city now thrives.

Sachin Shenolikar | The Guardian & UPS

Jerrod Hogan treaded slowly, taking one careful step after another. The scene around him was akin to a post-apocalyptic tale set in the future, yet this was reality on May 22, 2011, in Joplin, Missouri.

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We can’t let a hardworking community be hindered by preventable yet devastating delays.

Cars and school buses were flipped upside down. Uprooted trees lay on the ground alongside fallen power lines. Streams shot up toward the sky through broken water mains. And the air was filled with the stench of gas coming from damaged pipelines.

Citizens wandered, trying to collect themselves in the aftermath of the massive tornado with 200mph winds that had ripped across the city, killing 161 people, injuring more than 1,000 and destroying in excess of 4,000 homes.

A woman holding a baby approached Hogan. Both were bleeding, and their clothes were in tatters. The woman asked Hogan for help, so he pointed her toward a Red Cross vehicle that had pulled up. Then a man walked up to him and asked: “Do you work here?”

Hogan thought it was an odd question, considering they were both standing in the street and not at a place of business.

“Do you know when they’re going to turn my power back on?” the man continued.

Hogan looked over at the man’s house. It was a pile of rubble. The man was in shock. And frankly, so was Hogan.

A few hours earlier, Hogan, then a 34-year-old principal at an engineering firm, was enjoying a barbecue with family and friends at his home on the north side of Joplin.

Shortly after 5:30pm, his ears popped and his house vibrated – telltale signs of a tornado. He didn’t have a basement or a storm shelter, so he put his three kids in a bathtub and placed pillows over their heads in case the ceiling collapsed.

Hogan turned on the radio and listened to reports of catastrophic destruction a mile away. When he deemed it safe to leave home, he grabbed a chainsaw to cut through debris and a case of bottled water for survivors. He took off in his Toyota Tundra and spent the night working with the Red Cross to treat victims and recover bodies.

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Recovery begins

By the following Friday, Hogan had recruited friends and colleagues to create the website RebuildJoplin.org. The simple site had a form for people who were seeking help and another form for people who wanted to volunteer.

This house is one of 181 that were erected by Rebuild Joplin and the St. Bernard Project after the Missouri tornado five years ago. Photograph: Drew Kimble

This house is one of 181 that were erected by Rebuild Joplin and the St. Bernard Project after the Missouri tornado five years ago. Photograph: Drew Kimble

With the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also set up in Joplin, the recovery phase was complete by the end of summer.

The focus then shifted to rebuilding, which proved to be a tougher undertaking. One issue was that some construction work was tasked to volunteers who didn’t have enough skills, experience or time to do a thorough job.

Joplin residents also faced contractor fraud, as strangers appeared from out of town offering to help but instead took advantage of their plight.

“Our community became a little guarded, not really being able to discern the organizations that were truly coming here to help versus the ones that were coming here selfishly to gain,” Hogan said.

Hogan and Rebuild Joplin connected with St. Bernard Project, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that specializes in construction after natural disasters.

They were impressed by the organization’s process, which included detailed plans mapped out on whiteboards in its office and a partner – UPS – that helped them manage their inventory of tools. Rebuild Joplin and St. Bernard Project agreed to work together.

When St. Bernard CEO Zack Rosenburg arrived in Joplin to survey the scene in the fall of 2011, he found that the devastation was still glaring – more than four months after the tornado had struck.

“You could see steps to a house, a teddy bear, and some school notebooks and photos, but there would be no house there,” he recalls. “The track of that tornado was crystal clear. One side of the street would be completely devastated and the other side of the street had no damage at all.”

Rosenburg remembers seeing a family of six living in a gutted house with all the windows blown out and no heat. They couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage and also rent a new place, so they had to stay put.

Rosenburg was hyperaware of the tremendous human toll from a slow rebuilding effort, something he’d experienced in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Consequences can include a rise in substance abuse, domestic violence and suicides.

“We couldn’t have the delays that impacted New Orleans be repeated in Joplin,” Rosenburg said. “We were committed to not letting another hardworking community be hindered by preventable yet devastating delays.”

Coordinated rebuilding effort

When Rebuild Joplin switched to the construction phase, team leaders had to focus on fundraising – something they had avoided during recovery.

UPS provided seed money to get the project going and helped to set up an inventoried supply warehouse. It also partnered with mentoring expert Dondi Scumaci on a two-session program in 2012 and 2013 that helped volunteer leaders get the most out of their budgets and personnel.

A cheerful house stands with landscaping to match, never hinting at the tornado wreckage that had stood in its place half a decade ago in Joplin, Missouri. Photograph: Drew Kimble

A cheerful house stands with landscaping to match, never hinting at the tornado wreckage that had stood in its place half a decade ago in Joplin, Missouri. Photograph: Drew Kimble

Rosenburg and Hogan credit UPS for turning them into smarter decision makers.

They learned how to track their tools in a more efficient way, which maximized time and resources. And they had access to a fuel management system that calculated the shortest route to deliver tools to sites. That reduced total gasoline costs by about 30 percent.

Construction got under way, with teams that included trained volunteers from UPS and AmeriCorps. The first remodeled house was finished by Christmas 2011.

The work continued, and the city began to show signs of its old form. Over three years, Rebuild Joplin and St. Bernard Project built 181 homes. Other organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, and contractors hired by Joplin officials also put up houses as well as commercial and city buildings.

The recovery wasn’t cheap – construction costs totaled more than $1.6bn. But thanks to a smart game plan and 1.5m hours of volunteer service, Joplin is now rebuilt. The city has more businesses today than before the tornado. And nearly all displaced citizens have homes.

Since the storm, Hogan has been giving tours of Joplin to executives who come to see the progress of projects. “In the beginning I didn’t have to say, ‘Here’s where the tornado struck,’” he said. “Now I have to stop and point and say, ‘See how those trees are taller than those trees? See how this roof is newer than that roof?’”

The fifth anniversary of the tornado is this May, and Joplin is planning a celebration of its reconstruction along with a memorial for those who passed away.

The city has become a role model. Its citizens now raise money for other stricken communities and lead recovery and resiliency workshops. Rebuild Joplin also collaborated with St. Bernard Project to write a disaster recovery playbook.

“There is power when everyone works together to attain a common goal,” said Oliver Bartolo of UPS, who helped to manage logistics efforts in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. “No amount of reward can replace the inner joy one feels for helping a city rise from ruins.”

Hogan said, “Our community embraces that pay-it-forward concept as way to say, ‘We had a bad day and you guys came and helped. Now it’s our turn.’ Joplin is a better community as a result of it.” goldbrown2

Featured Image: A woman shows photos of the devastation left by the tornado that leveled Joplin, Missouri. Five years later, the community has been rebuilt. Photograph: Drew Kimble

This article originally appeared on The Guardian on April 5, 2016, and was republished with permission. 

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Sachin Shenolikar is Senior Digital Editor of Branded Content at Guardian News & Media

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