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The school system now houses most of its students in temporary structures or leased space. Joplin High School’s juniors and seniors attend class in a decade-vacant Shopko store in a mall that has been refurbished with modern classrooms, a spiffy computer and video lab, and Joplin Eagles artwork on the walls.
Getting students in classes improved community morale and has been among the most consequential steps in Joplin’s recovery. It would not have happened if Huff and his team did not have the flexibility to innovate around bureaucracy as usual.
‘A Different Set of Rules’
East Middle School is a less happy story than Joplin High. Having opened only in 2009, the school was declared a “total loss” after the tornado. Because reconstruction has involved the federal government, the project initially was delayed for months. “We’re having to follow a different set of rules,” Huff says, “because federal dollars are involved.”
Most taxpayers appreciate government procurement and contracting regulations designed to limit waste, fraud, and abuse. But those safeguards can exasperate locals who are racing against the clock to make important decisions in the wake of catastrophe. “For us to be able to tap into those federal funds that we’ll need to rebuild,” Board of Education President Micklethwaite says, “we have to follow their procedures, which are quite frankly slower than what we—even in a normal situation—would have to do in the state of Missouri.”
“According to the state and how we have to bid architects, it’s much more open,” Micklethwaite explains. “But when you bring the federal government and FEMA into it, they have very specific requirements, for architectural bids or anything else.” Micklethwaite recalls sitting around a table with fellow school board members and FEMA representatives after the tornado. “There’s this giant book,” she says, “that’s like three inches thick with tiny, tiny print, and it’s all the rules and regulations about federal emergency management. And they’re flipping through the book and looking at very specific statutes and rules that we have to follow, and at that point I really thought, ‘OK, this is going to be challenging.’”
Micklethwaite is quick to add that FEMA has been helpful, providing among other things “temporary modular classrooms” for seven schools damaged by the storm, as well as 600 trailers for displaced residents. But the feds are by nature bureaucratic.
“It’d sure be nice,” says Superintendent Huff, “if there were federal procurement policies that allowed for expedited processes in emergency events, and that’s not the case. So we’re wading through paperwork.” He says that, “hypothetically,” the district could have broken ground on a new East Middle School in late summer of 2011. “That would be a building,” Huff says, “that we could have online next fall for our kids, and now it’s probably looking more like next Christmas at best.” Huff’s “at best” turned out to be ambitious, if not unrealistic. The school board has since approved a reconstruction schedule that predicts an East Middle School ribbon-cutting ceremony in December 2013.
‘Get the Hell Out of the Way’
Owners of houses that were declared a total loss faced a daunting obstacle to rebuilding: The city government would not let them build even a temporary structure to protect their property from the rain, for fear that it would obstruct debris-removal efforts. Joplin faced a hard August 7 deadline from FEMA to have the wreckage cleared in order to get 90 percent of cleanup costs reimbursed from Washington.
On June 20, 2011, after contentious debate, the Joplin City Council voted 7 to 2 for a 60-day moratorium on new construction. City Councilman Bill Scearce, an insurance salesman, was one of the votes against, fearing displaced residents would simply settle somewhere else, as many Gulf Coast homeowners did after Katrina. “If you’ve got somebody that wants to build a house on site and protect their property,” Scearce says, “I mean, who are we to tell them they can’t do that?…We need to put up ways that people can get things done instead of making them jump through hoops.” City employees, he says, should do their jobs and then “just get the hell out of the way.”
In the end, the moratorium itself got out of the way: The council lifted the ban more than three weeks ahead of schedule once all but 300 lots had been cleared.
David Glenn, a local commercial real estate broker, said the city’s flexible building department also smoothed reconstruction efforts. “There’s some building jurisdictions that feel like they’re the Gestapo,” Glenn says. “ ‘You’re going to do it our way, or you’re not going to do it all.’ But Joplin doesn’t have that attitude.” City administrators brought in extra inspectors to deal with the massive demand for building and repair permits. Meanwhile, Glenn says, most local businesses turned down the $10 million in rebuilding loans offered by the federal Small Business Administration, because they deemed the lower interest rates not worth the red tape that comes with a government-backed loan.
‘We Just Keep Moving Forward’
Much of Joplin’s recovery success to date is thanks to assertive local leaders and coordination between government and voluntary organizations. Hurricane Katrina wrought devastation on a much greater scale, but even accounting for that difference, stories of red tape and bureaucratic inertia are much rarer in Joplin. Freedom and discretion to rebuild have been the default setting for locals.