After a catastrophic tornado wiped out a third of Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, Mark Rohr sat in a fire station surrounded by a sea of FEMA “blue jackets” and was told that trailers of temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless by the storm would be delivered “by the first frost”.
The first frost was in six months.
“I turned around, looked up at them and said, ‘This is unacceptable. It’s too long, ”said Rohr, then managing director of Joplin. “If we don’t keep people close to town, let’s keep the links, we’re going to lose them for good.” “
The need to act quickly and keep the community together motivated every step of Joplin’s recovery from the costliest tornado on record, a mile-wide monster that killed 161 people, destroyed 4,500 homes and businesses, and caused nearly $ 3 billion in damage. The 2011 twister is also the most studied and offers vital lessons for rebuilding Mayfield, Bowling Green and other communities hit by severe tornadoes on December 10 and 11.
“The first year is adrenaline. Then people realize how long it takes to come back. And you realize how difficult it is, ”said Jane Cage, a small business owner who helped lead the Joplin rebuilding effort and was later recruited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to. teach other communities.
“This is all taking so much longer than you might think,” she said.
In the early evening of May 22, 2011, Joplin was struck by an F5 multi-vortex storm with winds later estimated to have reached 200 mph. Entire neighborhoods have been razed to the ground. The main hospital was a total loss. Several schools, churches, a retirement home and dozens of businesses were destroyed. At least 10,000 people needed temporary shelter.
As they assessed the devastation, Joplin officials quickly set an urgent goal: to keep the city’s population at 51,000. They knew some people would leave rather than rebuild. But a mass exodus could bankrupt Joplin, a regional economic hub in the southwest corner of Missouri, resulting in spiraling losses of people, taxes and momentum.
“We had to do something to create a vision of where we could end up,” Rohr said.
Rohr began to talk about rebuilding to honor the memory of those who had died. At first, he held a press conference almost every day to let residents know what was going on and to hammer home his vision, invoking “the miracle of the human spirit”.
“They had to see that something good could come out of something horrible,” Rohr said.
At the time, long-term goals were unclear. But to achieve this, immediate concrete action was needed. To begin with, the streets had to be cleaned.
“We had to clean up to start the reconstruction,” said Gary Shaw, a member of city council at the time.
Thousands of volunteers flocked to the town – so many that Joplin abandoned a plan to limit access to the hardest-hit areas in hopes of deterring looters and onlookers. Federal and state agencies also participated.
Once the streets are cleared, trucks could carry the debris of thousands of destroyed homes and buildings. The Army Corps of Engineers coordinated the movements. Three million cubic meters of debris was cleared in 68 days – so quickly the city met targets for federal and state authorities to recover nearly all of the multi-million dollar prize.
None of this has been easy. Debris had to be stacked before it could be collected. Truck movements had to be coordinated. Landfills had to be ready to take unexpected mountains of trash.
After the slate was cleaned, city officials had to decide what to put back. They argued over building code changes. It seemed foolish to rebuild homes to the same standards, leaving them vulnerable to the next tornado.
“We wanted to mitigate the risk,” said Troy Bolander, chief of the city’s planning department. “But we are still a community of blue collar workers. We had to find a balance. “
About 40% of deaths in Joplin have occurred in homes – far more than the historical average – due to a lack of basements and “inadequate structural conditions,” according to a study by researchers in Kansas.
Some people wanted to require that every house have a concrete storm shelter. But that would have increased the cost of each new home by $ 5,000. The city decided to demand more rigid wall and roof connections and stronger load systems. This increased the cost, but only by an additional $ 600 per house, Bolander said.
Joplin officials decided to add storm shelters when they rebuilt the destroyed schools. Later, they also added storm shelters in schools that had survived the tornado.
The role of collapsed homes and buildings in Joplin’s huge toll has been examined by a team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology – the same federal agency that is currently investigating the June condominium collapse in Surfside. , in Florida.
The technical survey produced 16 recommendations for improving buildings in tornado-prone areas. So far, however, only one of the recommendations has found its way into building codes across the country: a new standard for storm shelters.
Bolander described the rebuilding process as a constant balancing act. Big decisions had to be made that would reverberate for years to come.
“We didn’t want to go too fast,” he said. “But we didn’t want to be so slow to be overwhelming.”
Even rapid progress could be masked by the massive scale of the loss. Joplin built an average of five new homes per week over the decade after the tornado. But even at this rate, it has yet to replace every lost home.
In the first weeks after the tornado, promises of short-term and permanent solutions shielded desperation.
Ten public school buildings were destroyed or badly damaged, but the superintendent promised students would be back in classrooms on time in the fall, three months later. He achieved this goal with temporary locations.
It took three years before the last of the new replacement buildings – Joplin High School – opened.
The owners of the devastated St. John’s Regional Medical Center have pledged to rebuild with a new medical campus and keep staff on the payroll, offering services to other locations in the meantime. The new Mercy Hospital Joplin opened four years later.
Residents also had a say in the reconstruction.
Cage, whose small downtown IT company suffered only minor damage, led an advisory group to gather local opinions. It was an opportunity to reinvent Joplin.
At Cage’s first meeting, just weeks after the tornado, she heard a flood of people wanting sidewalks on both sides of the street, new trees and underground utility lines. They wanted pedestrian areas.
“A disaster can really be an opportunity to do better,” Cage said.
The reward was far away. Joplin has received more than $ 150 million in federal grants, but the funds have been spread over several years. Most of the money went to rebuilding sewers and streets.
Two years after the tornado, when reconstruction had fallen at a steady pace, Cage set out to record what they had learned.
“I felt we were going to lose the institutional knowledge if we didn’t write it down,” she said.
She asked dozens of volunteers to record their advice for other disaster-affected communities, collated it in book form, and posted it on the city’s website. The book has been downloaded approximately 900 times.
“It’s really about making sure people have a place to work, a place to live, a place for their kids to go to school,” Cage said.
The disaster – coupled with the hard work of reconstruction – also had a mental impact. Researchers found high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in adolescents after the Joplin Tornado. Drug abuse has increased. Concerns about suicide led to a public health slogan: “Don’t let one disaster lead to another. “
Opening of a psychological services center for children. St. John’s brought in a psychologist to train medical staff in identifying and treating PTSD – and preventing long-term problems.
“When things fall apart – after the sixth or first birthday – most communities feel forgotten,” said psychologist Doug Walker, who also did similar work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
A decade after the tornado, some residents are still nervous when the sky turns stormy. Shaw said he used to stand on his porch and watch the clouds roll in.
“Now when I hear the sirens (from the tornado),” he said, “I grab my wife and my dog and head for the basement.”
Rohr said he was still crying when talking about the tornado. In the first year he pushed away the feeling of being shocked and upset because there was so much work to be done.
“I had to sublimate my feelings,” he said.
Despite the frantic pace of reconstruction, the streets of Joplin still bear the scars of the tornado. Trees are shorter in the most affected neighborhoods. The houses are newer and more like traditional housing estates. And a few steps lead to empty foundations, places yet to be rebuilt.
“I don’t think we’re fully recovered, but we’re this far,” Cage said.
Every time someone accesses the book Cage has assembled on Joplin’s Rebuilding Campaign, she receives an email notification. Last week she learned that it had been uploaded by someone near Mayfield. She said she had also been contacted to rally residents of Joplin to speak to the people of Mayfield “to reassure them that there is hope.”
In the first year after the tornado, Rohr failed in his efforts to maintain the population of Joplin. Although he rallied residents and got FEMA to deliver these temporary caravans in weeks instead of months – long before the first frost – the city’s population fell by around 1,000.
But every year since, more people have called Joplin home than the day the tornado hit – a validation of Rohr’s urgent vision.
Rohr is not one of them, however. In 2014, he was fired after arguing with Joplin City Council.
“Political reasons,” said Rohr, who is now the general manager of a small town in east Texas.
This was not how Rohr wanted to end his campaign to save Joplin.
But in its own way, the return of political wrangling in small towns was a sign that Joplin was on the road to recovery.