After the Tornado Came to Town

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Mercy Health / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Destruction in the wake of the Joplin tornado.

As soon as I opened the door to the crate, the cat shot up the stairs. I had been in the basement for about 20 minutes, listening to the wind blow and the rain come down. When the sirens sounded for the first time, I turned on the TV to check the weather. The radar showed a tornado west of Joplin, Missouri that seemed headed towards my neighborhood. When the sirens sounded a second time, I put on my raincoat, put my cellphone in my pocket, gathered up the pets and headed down the stairs. Now it was quieter, and it seemed safe to come up.

I opened the front door to a neighborhood that looked much the same as it did earlier in the afternoon. The electricity was on, but there was no cable TV or phone service. A neighbor called my cellphone with the news that there may have been some damage downtown. We drove down and looked at our respective offices, which were fine. We headed west, encountered only one downed tree and headed back home. I thought to myself, “I guess it wasn’t so bad after all.”

It wasn’t until the next day that I saw for myself how bad it was, after an evening of listening to sirens and fire trucks. It turned out that the Joplin tornado would be the worst tornado on record since 1947 in the United States. Driving twelve blocks south from my office, my hometown was unrecognizable. Even today, any words used to describe the devastation seem inadequate. There have been thousands of pictures of what Joplin looked like in those hours and days. I can tell you that none of them hold a candle to being there in person.

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Paul Brady / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Joplin High School was badly damaged by the storm.

The EF5 tornado that moved through Joplin left a path of destruction about 13 miles long and up to three-quarters of a mile wide. An estimated 7,500 structures were damaged, with 4,000 of those destroyed. St. John’s Hospital took a direct hit, as well as our high school, two elementary schools, two fire stations, and almost every park across the city. Worst of all, 161 of our friends and neighbors lost their lives as a result of the storm.

In the first weeks after the tornado, I did what all citizens did—we helped friends, neighbors, and strangers literally pick up the leftover pieces of their lives. We moved residential debris to the curb for pickup and by the end of summer, between volunteers, residents, businesses, and contractors, we had hauled more debris than from the World Trade Center Disaster.

At the end of June, I got an invitation to a meeting organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region VII Long-term Community Recovery to explore the idea that citizens should have a place in the long-term recovery of Joplin. We needed a mechanism to stop looking around and start looking ahead. The Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART) suggested by FEMA and mobilized by the city became just that. We divided ourselves into four sectors: schools and community facilities, economic development, housing/neighborhoods and environment/infrastructure. We made the decision that sustainability should run through them all.

When I took on the role of chairman, I will admit, I did not have a clue about where or how to lead. The FEMA folks started inviting me to lunch every other day to discuss possible directions and scenarios. They reminded me that every disaster is local, and that may be partially true, but there are elements that all disasters have in common. For us, disaster was a new experience. The government groups that came to help had far more expertise than we did. It did not take me too long to catch on to that, and to begin to ask for help and guidance directly. Taking full advantage of the experience and expertise of federal and state agencies went a long way towards moving us forward. Part of their answer was to give me a book to read—the FEMA Long Term Recovery Self-Help Guide. One Saturday, I sat out on the porch and read it from start to finish, twice. It was then that the light bulb went off about how to navigate the long-term recovery process. I understood that recovery is a process and not an event.

From the beginning, our goal was to get as much input from citizens as we could. FEMA coordinated our first public input meeting just twelve days after we met for the first time as a group. We were all worried about whether anyone would come because there were plenty of reasons not to—debris removal was in full-swing. But, that afternoon and evening, 350 people passed through the doors of the school gymnasium. There was a nurse who had taken care of me at St. John’s eight weeks before who told me how she found her dog inside the kitchen cabinet. There was a young man I recognized from church as the caretaker of three developmentally disabled adults who had all died as a result of the tornado. People were engaged at every level, answering questions, and talking with neighbors. It was good to see.

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Chris Gray-Garcia, US Army / CC BY 2.0
The CART, FEMA, and other federal agencies, including the US Army Corps of Engineers, combined efforts to provide immediate relief and long term planning for the Joplin recovery.

The meeting allowed people to stop looking around and start looking ahead. With one third of Joplin now a clean slate, the path was literally cleared to think about a re-imagined city. We had requests for pocket parks and more sidewalks. People wanted an updated and more consistent appearance for our commercial districts. They asked about amenities we did not have before, such as dog parks and splash pads. They wanted the rebuilt schools to be examples of 21st century learning environments with the caveat that every school should have a safe room. People cared about building in more green and sustainable ways. Every suggestion that was made that night was published in a booklet that we handed out to residents across the city to gain more feedback.

Throughout that entire summer, I was pulled between process and progress. There were times when it was tempting to short-change citizen vision in order to align it with what we thought was reality. At the end of the day, we decided to dream big. Our plan became a blueprint for what citizens wanted but not a roadmap on how to accomplish that vision. It turned out to be the right decision. As I look back, we have found ways to accomplish goals that I thought would be impossible.

By fall, the FEMA team started to wind down their presence in Joplin. Considering they were the operational support team for CART, it started to get a little lonely getting the plan written. In November, we presented the plan to the City Council. It felt like a big moment and the council chambers were packed that night. But, a plan without direction and follow-up is just a wish-book. That same night, the Mayor called for an Implementation Task Force (ITF) to assign responsibilities and priorities to the plan. The ITF was made up of representatives of the school board, the city council, the chamber of commerce, and CART itself. This meant another round of work for all of us, and more time. In January of 2012, we convened a joint meeting of the City Council, the School Board, the Chamber Board, and the CART Executive Board. It was the first time in the history of our city that all of those groups had ever met together. That endorsement allowed everyone in the community to move forward on the same page.

Of course, we needed to enlist outside help to accomplish the plan. We held a recovery forum with the help of FEMA and the Chamber. We invited foundations, federal agencies and state agencies to attend. We presented the plan and asked each group represented to walk through the plan to see where their agencies might fit. Even as long as a year later, we were still getting responses that turned into substantial assistance.

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sarahjole / CC BY-NC 2.0
Recovery efforts in Joplin have been defined by local ownership and involvement in the process.

The CART plan has turned into the de-facto long-term recovery plan for Joplin. Every CART sector translated their goals into projects that could be catalysts for recovery. Some of those projects were about quality of life issues aimed at retaining and attracting new citizens such as calling for extending our walking trails and requiring bike lanes when streets were refurbished or built. Economic development ideas included anchor projects within the devastated area to spur redevelopment and to develop new zoning codes to accommodate leftover retail and mixed-use developments.

The work that a group of volunteers did over the course of six months has been referenced more times than I can count. It has gained notoriety as a ‘bottom up’ planning process that helped guide and shape our recovery. Unlike other plans guided by consultants or government entities, this is a plan for the people by the people. If you are interested in seeing any of the documents, they may be found at www.joplinareacart.com.

We have been asked for our advice on citizen participation many times. Here are some of the items that I always pass along to anyone taking on that role:

  • Remember that you work for the citizens—your purpose is to listen, report and then to be their advocate.
  • Remaining objective and independent is absolutely essential.
  • Use the role to build bridges between other groups. In recovery, everyone is running a race, and generally in their own lane. Help them to look side-to-side and communicate to strengthen the effort.
  • Be ready to be in for the long haul. Do not just drop off the plan at the government‘s doorstep. Your continued presence is a reminder of whom everybody should be working for—the citizens that trusted you with their hopes and dreams.