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Building Back Better in Joplin

Ten years ago, one of the worst tornadoes tore through Joplin, Missouri.

Although work remains to be done, the city’s rebuilding accomplishments are widely praised. A collection of essays provides useful and inspiring lessons on how the city reopened schools at the beginning of the school year, provided shelter, opened a clinic, and coordinated volunteers’ efforts. Today, these essays serve as project management templates to other communities devastated by natural disasters.

Video Spotlight: Rebuilding for Resilience: How the Tornado Changed Joplin’s Homes  (May 21, 2021, 41 Action News) 

This post is based on The Washington Post article, Devastated by a Tornado 10 Years ago, Joplin, Mo., Offers Lessons in What Comes Next, by T.C. Frankel, December 19, 2021, and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Aaron Roeth Photography.

Discussion Questions:

1. What were the factors that needed to be balanced for the rebuilding project?

Guidance: The factors that needed to be balanced were time, cost, and quality. The city had to be rebuilt fast enough to prevent a population exodus. A massive population decrease would have affected tax revenue, community spirit, and the ability to rebuild. Building fast required more resources, potentially compromising quality if corners had been cut. On the other hand, meeting the deadline for debris removal enabled the city to have most of the cost covered by state and federal funds. Furthermore, quality improvements in construction to prevent future losses had to be mitigated against their costs and the population’s financial means. This is why the mandate for costly, concrete storm shelters was abandoned, and reinforced wall and roof connections were preferred. See the anchor bolts and hurricane clips used for reconstruction in the video.

2. In planning and managing this project, what efforts were made to limit population losses?

Guidance: Right from the beginning, there was an urgency to acknowledge people’s grief and unify the community. At the same time, there was an understanding that it was necessary to offer hope and provide a vision of what a better future would hold. The vision had to be supported by fast, tangible progress: clearing the streets; involving citizens in the planning and implementation of the rebuilding projects; ensuring some sense of normalcy during the rebuilding with alternative locations for work, housing, and various services; and offering concrete proof that future life in Joplin could be even better than before.

3. Why is the rebuilding effort considered a success?

Guidance: The rebuilding effort is considered a success because the coordination of efforts enabled the rebuilding in a relatively short amount of time and at a reasonable cost. Federal, state, and local officials as well as business owners and ordinary citizens worked as a cohesive team to provide concrete solutions in the most efficient way. Mistakes were probably made, but the sense of urgency pushed people to learn from them and move the project forward. The lessons drawn from the project are published on the city’s website. They are a popular reference for cities affected by natural disasters.

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