After the Storm

How Joplin, Missouri, rebuilt following a devastating tornado by circumventing bureaucracy.


On May 22, 2011, a tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri. The multi-vortex storm cut an eerily straight west-east line through Joplin's downtown street grid, growing to three quarters of a mile wide at its peak. In the end, the Category 5 twister physically picked up and slammed down about one-quarter of the town, creating 3 million cubic yards of debris. It flattened big-box stores such as Home Depot and Walmart and left a desert of concrete foundation slabs covering a six-mile stretch of destruction. The storm killed 161 people, displaced 9,000 more, and completely wiped out more than 4,000 structures while damaging another 3,000. It was the deadliest tornado since modern recordkeeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But as the one-year anniversary of the storm approached, Joplin found itself in startlingly good shape. Local officials estimate that insurance claims will total $2 billion, yet the town's business tax revenues are actually up for the year. School enrollment is 95 percent of what it was before the tornado, and the vast majority of displaced residents have secured lodging in or near the area.

Joplin's recovery contrasts with the fitful, fraught response to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, 700 miles to the south, in 2005. The two storms, like the two cities, were different in nature and scale. But there were also disparities in the official and unofficial responses after the initial damage. While the people of Joplin largely took matters into their own hands, pushing aside burdensome rules and refusing help when it came with too many strings attached, New Orleans and the surrounding area to this day remains hamstrung by federal, state, and local bureaucracy. Joplin's experience offers a powerful lesson in self-sufficiency and knowing when to say "no thanks" to government.

'This Isn't the FEMA of Katrina'

When I flew to Joplin in the fall of 2011 on one of the two daily flights serving the city, residents were still struggling to fathom their losses. But they were certain about one thing. Over and over, locals told me, "This isn't the FEMA of Katrina." Which was good, because after Hurricane Katrina the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stalled the recovery and rebuilding for millions of Gulf Coast residents. In the months and years after the hurricane and resulting floods, media outlets, congressional investigations, and government reports excoriated the agency for its inept response. Indecision at local, state, and federal levels of government, as well as rigid regulations concerning everything from occupational licensing to debris removal, delayed or hindered Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts. FEMA's own internal investigation admitted that the "widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response" was well deserved.

One reason the FEMA of 2011 did not perform like the FEMA of 2005 was that Joplin residents were determined not to let that happen. Founded by lead and zinc miners in the 19th century, this small southwestern Missouri town has a long history of self-reliance in a state that ranks fifth in overall freedom from burdensome government regulations, according to a 2011 study by the free market Mercatus Center (which sponsored my trip to Joplin as part of a broader tornado recovery research project for which I handled logistics). The community has the close-knit feel you'd expect of a small Midwestern town, with a network of active voluntary organizations and church groups that collaborate regularly. And as Beloit College economist Emily Chamlee-Wright concluded after leading more than 400 interviews with Katrina survivors, the best approach once emergency gives way to recovery is to reduce government involvement and devolve power to disaster victims, who know their own situations best. "In order to minimize signal noise that inhibits the response from markets and civil society," Chamlee-Wright writes in her 2010 book The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery, "government at all levels should scale back its efforts as soon as possible to make room for markets and voluntary organizations to provide basic supplies, food, clean-up, and construction services."

Despite its small size, Joplin, home of St. John's Regional Medical Center and battery manufacturer Eagle­Picher, is a regional hub for commerce, providing jobs and connections to residents of nearby Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. "Joplin's a town of 50,000 people at night but a city of a quarter-million during the day," goes the local refrain. The recovery benefited from these trade routes. After the tornado, emergency response teams from around the state streamed into town. Four hundred and thirty police, fire, and public works departments helped with search and rescue, cleanup, and debris removal. Doctors and nurses, many of whom worked at one of Joplin's two hospitals or in the medical services sector clustered around them, came from around the four-state area. A handful of warehouses around the city are full to this day with donated material such as tarps, clothing, and food.

Most displaced people found refuge with nearby family or friends; the city estimates that 95 percent of people displaced by the storm stayed within 25 miles of town. "A lot of the residents are staying here," Assistant City Manager Sam Anselm tells me. It's "a testament to the spirit, the way the community responded to this."

The city registered 130,000 volunteers from around the country and estimates that at least that many helped and weren't counted. One even came from Japan and stayed two weeks, citing the way Americans donated to his country after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. (Someone found the Japanese volunteer a bicycle that he rode 12 miles each day to and from his cleanup site.) In October, ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition rolled into town and built seven homes in seven days. Habitat for Humanity built 10 the next month.

The tornado sucked nine-story St. John's a few inches off its foundation before setting it back down. The medical center erected temporary structures in open space next door, complete with an emergency room, and managed to keep nearly all of its 2,200 employees on payroll. Along with medical jobs, Joplin is home to a handful of big businesses, such as building materials company TAMKO, a PotashCorp animal feed plant, and a General Mills factory.

Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff didn't want what he dubbed the "Hurricane Katrina effect" of people fleeing the area permanently, so the school district established a program for volunteers to "adopt" students and provide them with school supplies. Private donations poured in; the United Arab Emirates gave $1 million, enough to issue a MacBook to every high school student. TAMKO donated $500,000. Other sources, from Lions Club International to singer Sheryl Crow (who auctioned off a Mercedes) to a 9-year-old Nevadan who raised $360 with a car wash, combined to contribute $3.5 million of private money to the district by September 2011.

'Better to Ask Forgiveness Than Permission'

Two days after the tornado, when 4,200 kids had nowhere to go to school, Superintendent Huff stood up at a staff meeting and said, "We're going to start school in 84 days." On August 17, they did just that. The tornado had destroyed the town's only public high school and 50 percent of the school district's property, inflicting $150 million worth of damage. When school re-opened as scheduled in the fall, enrollment hit 95 percent.

How did they do it? "Sometimes," Huff explains, "it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission." A day after the storm, once Huff had canceled the remainder of the school year, the Joplin school board granted him emergency authority to circumvent usual bureaucratic procedures in order to deal directly with the disaster. "We knew that to keep things moving at a rapid pace, we needed to give our superintendent authority to make decisions as quickly as possible," says Joplin Board of Education President Ashley Micklethwaite. "The worst thing we can do as a board is get down into the weeds and worry about minute details. We had to look at the big picture, and the big picture was getting our schools back up and running."

Huff's new powers included the ability to make emergency procurement decisions instead of, for example, adhering to a mandatory two-week minimum for posting bids. The superintendent also successfully lobbied Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who signed a handful of executive orders granting the district emergency permission to speed up the contracting process faster than state regulations usually allow. Huff gathered a team of architects and contractors he had used for previous district jobs and began planning temporary construction for the approaching school year. Within a few days, he says, they were able to choose which subcontractors and building materials to use, a process that would normally take up to one month. City Hall also responded to the needs of the school district and its builders, agreeing to receive and approve plans and blueprints piecemeal rather than requiring the usual single master set. A process that would typically take months took only a few weeks.

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.

Mistakes after Katrina caused much delay, despair, and suffering. They also revealed lessons that have improved FEMA's disaster response. Joplin provides more learning material. If successful disaster recovery relies upon having good people in power, many if not most municipalities will fare much worse in the event of a catastrophe than Joplin has so far. We have a government of laws, not men. The good men and women of Joplin have pushed those laws to promote recovery, but in the absence of such people, and especially in the absence of improved laws, victims of future disasters are more likely to be saddled with something closer to the Katrina recovery.

Micklethwaite went through the tornado not just as president of Joplin's school board but also as a resident of her hometown, to which she returned 20 years ago. She describes her neighborhood as "closed" before the tornado; after the storm, she did laundry in a neighbor's house while hers was being repaired, and people on her street held group meetings in the cul-de-sac to discuss rebuilding. "We joke about it being group therapy," she says. "We just keep moving forward."

Tate Watkins is a 2012 Phillips Foundation fellow and a former reason intern. He lives in Port-au-Prince.