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Learnings from Joplin Ten Years After the Tornado

The storm lasted roughly 45 minutes. Trees were stripped of bark. Asphalt pulled up from roads and parking lots. Winds reached 200 miles per hour. Much of Joplin, Missouri was left devastated from an EF5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

SBP’s co-founder Zack Rosenburg went to Missouri to see how we could help. We were a year into revolutionizing SBP’s work using Toyota’s Production System for rebuilding. It had increased our efficiency and production work post-Katrina and we knew it could make a difference in another suffering community as well. Zack arrived in Joplin not knowing anyone, but hoping maybe he could meet someone and share the resources we had.

At a hotdog stand for lunch, he happened to hear the co-founders of Rebuild Joplin talking about recovery while waiting for their food. He introduced himself and SBP. A visit to New Orleans quickly followed for the Rebuild Joplin team to see our processes first-hand.

Thomas Corley, now SBP’s Chief Recovery Officer, moved to Joplin to support the full integration of SBP and Rebuild Joplin. The mission was simple: Rebuild homes and stay until the work was complete.

Recovery projections suggested 7 to 10 years before the city was back. We completed our mission in December of 2014, just shy of three and a half years after the tornado touched down.

Last week, to participate in the 10th anniversary of the tornados, Thomas returned to Joplin. Here are a few of his takeaways on how that experience still guides our rebuilding work today.

Tornados are different kinds of storms. The devastation is total and varied. While some homes are completely destroyed, others sustain minor exterior damage. In Joplin, the tornado was just under a mile wide and chewed up everything in its path, leaving a scar across the center of Joplin.

Today, our office and warehouse is vacant, but you can still see the outline of where we hung our whiteboards in the room where we held our daily huddles. Joplin itself has changed. Young trees are now ten years old, stronger limbs and more shade. The new housing stock now holds a patina, in some ways seeming that the home has been there for decades.

A 24-hour home build project in Joplin.

I left Joplin with many important lessons. Here are just a few.

Whole community recovery is possible — Last week, Kansas City University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Joplin, which opened in 2017, graduated its first class. A new dental school will soon open. Population is up, homeownership levels are above pre-storm rates. There are new restaurants, a new library, new parks. SBP’s role in preserving homeownership, and sticking with it to the end, was an essential building block in supporting the redefinition of Joplin.

There is unforeseeable, and unfettered, beauty and power that comes from SBP’s AmeriCorps and Volunteer programs — One of our larger donations came from a local beverage company — Cott. Our Volunteer Coordinator, Courtney, invited them to our office, provided them with a stellar volunteer experience, and got them to invite us to tour their plant. While there, we made a pitch together — sponsor a home. Courtney sold them on it, and we left with $50,000.

The ripples extend beyond what we could imagine, or what we see — The very first AmeriCorps member I ever managed at SBP, Danyale, was going through a lot during her term of service. Motivation, focus and consistency wasn’t coming easy for her. She proudly completed her term of service, and we lost touch for a few years. Last week, I stopped by her store — she’s now a small business owner in a community she didn’t know seven years ago. Danyale got there on her own, but you can hear how her service to Joplin, and SBP, are defining moments for her.

Beyond all of this, Joplin shows us that community is not defined by proximity. Some of us at SBP are not from the communities we serve. Others are raising their hands, nominating themselves to deploy when a new community is hit by a disaster. All of us, together, are building a more wide-reaching and impacting SBP. Our organization touches lives, and makes impact, well beyond our geography. This, I think, is one of the most beautiful pieces of our DNA.

Our final welcome home party in Joplin in 2014.