That’s how much of Joplin’s population Troy Bolander feared the city could lose after the May 22, 2011, tornado.
Now director of planning, development and neighborhood services for the city of Joplin, Bolander and his staff surveyed communities hit by Hurricane Katrina and found that some Gulf Coast communities had lost 30% of their residents after 2005, and six years later they were still struggling to recover. Greensburg, Kansas, fared worse: Three years after it was hit by a monster tornado in 2007, its population was only half what it had been.
Thirty percent was also how much of Joplin was wrecked by the EF5 tornado.
And a 30% hit to student enrollment is also what former Joplin School District Superintendent C.J. Huff had been warned by Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to expect.
It was a worrisome coincidence of numbers.
“I think a lot of the discussion that was going on, we did not want to be that place that lost a lot of population and took years to recover,” recalled Rob O’Brian, then president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
“If we are losing students, we are losing families, and if we are losing families we are losing community,” Huff said recently.
Losing 30% of its residents would drop Joplin from 50,000 population to 35,000, and with that would go employers, employees, the tax base, school enrollment and much more.
But it didn’t happen.
Instead, the city grew in population.
Instead, Bolander said, the city saw more than $1 billion in investment in the first three years after the storm, and just this spring pushed past the $2 billion mark in new commercial and home construction and renovation and expansion since the tornado, according to city building permits.
Nearly one-fourth of that, $485 million, was invested in new homes and home improvements in the city limits; the city has averaged five new homes a week for the past 10 years, Bolander said.
“Within three years we were over our tornado population,” added Jane Cage, who chaired the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team — or CART — that helped lead the recovery with resident input.
So how did the city of Joplin beat the odds?
In order to get Joplin back on its feet and keep people from moving out, Cage and other city leaders believed there were three key questions Joplin residents needed answered, and quickly:
• Where will I live?
• Do I still have a job?
• Will my children have a place to go to school?
When the sun came up on May 23, 2011, and the community began to get its head around the scale of the disaster, each of those questions looked daunting.
Could the community answer them and soon enough to reassure people and convince them to stay.
More than 7,500 homes had been destroyed or damaged.
More than 530 businesses were also destroyed or damaged. The tornado had passed through business districts along Main Street and Range Line Road. The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce began contacting employers, large and small, both members and nonmembers, O’Brian said.
“We had calculated we had a little over 5,000 jobs at risk,” he recalled.
And half of the school district’s buildings, including the high school, were either destroyed or damaged; by one estimate, more than 4,200 students had lost their school. Also destroyed was St. Mary’s Elementary School.
“You can’t stay here if you don’t have a job and if you don’t have a place to live, which is why we pushed to get the FEMA trailers here so quickly,” Cage said.
But answers came quickly.
Two days after the tornado, Huff announced that schools would open on time in the fall.
“I knew it was really important to establish a goal,” Huff said. “For us, it was getting back to school, getting our kids back to school.”
That meant making sure temporary schools were clean and modern, that students had incentives to come back, like the 1:1 technology initiative, and it meant working with area districts to provide transportation to Joplin for students who had moved outside district boundaries.
It also meant summer school had to go on.
“We opened summer school two weeks after the disaster,” Huff said. “We opened summer school in time, and then extended it through the rest of the summer. That gave adults the space to do what they needed to do for recovery. … That was pretty good messaging to our parents.”
The district’s steps were among the first to reassure the community.
“I think that built confidence in recovery,” Cage said. “The fact that he proclaimed that gave everyone a goal to meet by the end of summer.”
And within the week the largest employer taken down by the storm, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, announced it was keeping all 2,200 workers on the payroll.
“Man, it was a great decision,” said Gary Pulsipher of the decision to keep everyone on the payroll. The retired president of what became Mercy Hospital Joplin after it was rebuilt, who now lives in Utah, said the decision was made by his boss, Lynn Britton, president and CEO of Mercy.
“Everybody was saying in Joplin, ‘Are we going to recover?’” Pulsipher recalled. “It was just one of those moments in time when things could have been more bleak.”
It a good decision not only for the community but also for the hospital.
“This workforce is too important and too difficult to try to rebuild in two or three years,” Pulsipher said.
Other employers followed suit.
“Walmart took that step,” O’Brian said of the store on Range Line Road. “Home Depot actually reopened with the tent store on Tuesday, nine days after the tornado.
“Those kinds of significant statements — big employers — were very critical. We also saw hundreds of smaller employers keep their people employed.”
Some businesses, including Freeman Health System, saw a need and began investing and hiring; in Freeman’s case, it expanded two open floors of the surviving Joplin hospital.
In all, according to chamber figures, 3,000 employees kept their jobs though their companies and offices were in ruins, according to an analysis by the Joplin chamber.
“It gave folks hope that Joplin can rebuild,” Pulsipher said of the decision.
The chamber also partnered with the U.S. Small Business Administration to open the Business Recovery Center just four days after the tornado, the fastest that such a center had ever happened in the country’s history, making disaster loans and other assistance available.
Housing was a more complicated challenge, and Cage said there was a need for everything from immediate to long-term housing solutions.
Just weeks before the disaster, the American Red Cross and Missouri Southern State University had signed an agreement that would turn the university into a center for recovery, offering shelter and day care as well as a base to coordinate the search for missing persons and to organize the volunteers who began pouring into town the night of the storm.
Chris Harmon, director of emergency services with the Southern Missouri chapter of the Red Cross at the time, recently noted in the Globe that the agreement with the university was crucial: “The expectations were lined out ahead of time. Having agreements in place like this helps us take care of clients quickly because everyone knows their roles.”
The agreement allowed the Red Cross, the Joplin Health Department and the Joplin Humane Society to quickly establish necessary support services for those affected by the tornado. It became the Multi-Agency Response Center, a one-stop shop where disaster victims could obtain help. It also became a model for the agency.
The Red Cross recorded 3,450 overnight shelter stays and provided more than 85,000 meals for shelter residents and volunteers. More than 180,000 volunteers from all over the world would show up to help with rebuilding homes, businesses and more.
“The first thing was getting the temporary housing at MSSU,” Bolander added.
Cage said the goal with long-term housing was another challenge. Both Bolander and Cage gave credit to former Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr for expediting FEMA housing, with Rohr telling FEMA officials at one point their initial schedule was unacceptable and that it needed to move more quickly. Bolander said the first FEMA housing opened 28 days after the tornado.
“I give credit to Mark Rohr,” Bolander said. “He wasn’t scared to make a decision. If he was wrong, just correct it and go on.”
FEMA would provide nearly 600 temporary housing units for individuals and families. By the first anniversary, 261 of those families and individuals had moved out; all were into permanent and long-term housing by June of 2013, just over two years after the tornado.
Other programs aimed at rebuilding in what became known as the recovery area. “Jumpstart Joplin” provided $22 million to builders, and the Missouri Housing Development Commission, at the behest of former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, made $94 million in tax credits available for housing projects.
The city waived some requirements, allowing rebuilding to begin quickly in the recovery zone. The first person to apply for a permit to rebuild a business showed up at Joplin City Hall the first thing May 23. Another initiative, the Joplin Homeowners Assistance Program, or J-HAP, provided help with down payments and closing costs for nearly 600 homes that were rebuilt in the recovery zone. According to city figures, a third of those participants were living outside of Joplin, and more than 80% had been renting before buying the home with J-HAP help.
‘Filled in nicely’
Not long ago, Scott Clayton was on 22nd Street, looking toward the recovery zone, amazed at what he saw.
“I saw trees coming back. … Things have filled in nicely,” said Clayton, director of Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity.
“There is a clientele who needs to be served with affordable housing that we can’t forget about.”
Partnering with businesses, churches and others, including Nixon’s challenge to Missouri’s professional sports teams to pitch in, made Habitat the largest nonprofit builder of homes, including those along 22nd Street.
Clayton said the organization has built 139 homes since the tornado, has built the most homes of all habitat affiliates in Missouri and is one of the top producers of new homes among Habitat affiliates in the country.
He said the value of those new homes — 103 of which were in the recovery area — could be put at $12 million to $15 million. The group has done hundreds more repair projects as part of its Brush with Kindness program.
Looking back over the decade and looking out across the work they have done and what it took to get there, Clayton said: “I felt encouraged. We’re all glad to see things getting back to a normal look, to a normal feel. You can’t really put it all into words.”
Daman Schuber also thinks about all that was accomplished.
A decade ago, he lived in Carl Junction, part owner of American Ramp Co., and Dan Mitchell, of Webb City, was CEO of a youth ministry in Joplin called The Bridge, which had on its board a Texas homebuilder. Schuber and Mitchell reached out to him after the tornado, to see if he could come here to help with rebuilding. That builder had his hands full, but he offered them his business model, floor plans and more, even allowing them to piggyback on his deals to get national pricing.
They formed Schuber Mitchell Homes that summer after the tornado.
“We became official on July 17, 2011,” Schuber said recently.
Since then, they have built more than 1,000 homes in the Joplin area, including Webb City, Carl Junction, Carthage and Neosho. The company is the largest private builder of homes in the area since the tornado. Prices range from $90,000 to $350,000, and an average of $190,000, for a more than $200 million investment in a 10-year period since the storm.
Schuber said two good things have come out of the storm.
“Our entry-level homes are a lot higher quality than they were 10 years ago. Through the destruction, the devastation, the tide rose.”
And Joplin housing is much stronger.
The “smallest change and biggest impact” was the requirement of hurricane ties, mechanical fasteners that bind the roof and the walls, keeping the roof from being sucked off and the walls from falling in, Schuber said. There also have been overall upgrades, and homes are much more energy efficient.
‘Compassion and grit’
Bolander, who awaits the results of the 2020 census to give an accurate picture of the city’s population a decade later, said there were some differences between Joplin and the Katrina-stricken communities, and between Joplin and Greensburg, but he and Cage both said one thing that made the difference for Joplin is that it was was able to answer those three questions quickly.
“If I graded them, I would give them an A” on those questions, Cage said. O’Brian, too, gave the city top marks on getting those three questions answered.
Added Bolander: “I think the key was just the compassion and grit of the community.”
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