‘It Happened to Us’

Joplin, Mo., Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer has a long list of lessons learned from the destructive tornado five years ago.

by Jim McKay / May 23, 2016
Joplin, Mo., Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer

This spring will mark the fifth anniversary of the devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, May 22, 2011. The tornado killed 161 people and caused nearly $3 billion in damage. Keith Stammer was the Joplin/Jasper County director of Emergency Management and is today. He talked recently about the recovery and lessons learned in Joplin.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the 2011 tornado. How has the recovery gone?

Recovery is going pretty well; everything is cleaned up. We got that done in short order. The problem here is coming back with housing. Joplin has more rentals than it has homeownership, so we have a lot of low- and moderate-income people who need places to stay. If you’ve ever done that, particularly with state and federal tax credits, it takes a while.
We were warned that this would take some time, but I was hoping it wouldn’t take as long as they thought. That being said, we’ve gained back what little of the population we lost. We actually have a few more residents than we had prior to the tornado, and unemployment is running under 5 percent. The other big thing that helped Joplin was that we basically live off sales tax and not off property tax, and the sales tax did not go down in terms of revenue. In fact, it went up because everyone wanted to rebuild. So that helped us from a financial standpoint in terms of not losing anything.

You have a long list of lessons learned from this event. Can you talk about a few of them?

For the first three years, you couldn’t talk weather and not talk about the tornado. Most of what I have [learned] is from a response standpoint. There are also some lessons learned from a recovery standpoint this far down the road, as we’re still in recovery mode.

One of the big things that helped us probably more than anything else is we had a standing COAD, Community Organizations Active in Disaster. We’ve had one since the tornadoes in 2003. We had two ice storms in 2007 and a Mother’s Day tornado in 2008, so when the 2011 tornado came along, we had the COAD there that immediately formed a Long-Term Recovery Committee, and they acted as the umbrella organization for all our different entities. We said, “If you’re interested in rebuilding and recovery, we want to do this as a group.” At the height of it we had 120 people representing 80 different organizations as members of our LTRC.

That has wound down and been dismantled and taken over by the COAD, which continues to meet every other month.

Emergency managers are traditionally more involved during response. What’s been your role during the recovery?

If I have anything as far as my general role in this, it is to act as a resource to individuals and organizations. I have about 720 different contacts on my phone — companies, churches, clubs, nonprofits and whatever else. So when somebody wants to do something in terms of the recovery, I can step in and say, “Yes, I know who you need to talk to.”

I participated in several group meetings on the recovery. One of the things the city did was form a Citizens Advisory Committee, whose job it was to go to the citizens and say basically, “We have this canvas that’s been unpainted, if you will, that is three-quarters of a mile wide and six miles long. What do you want in here?”

It wasn’t totally destroyed, but there were a lot of blocks after blocks of nothing. Do you want schools? What about zoning, churches, parks, running trails? All of a sudden businesses started saying, “We’ve always wanted to be located along 26th Street but there was never any property; now there is. Is that something the citizens are interested in?”

And so [the advisory committee] produced a booklet with a lot of different ideas that was used as feedback to the city. Another thing we learned is that you can’t depend on yourself in this kind of thing because who has this kind of experience, particularly on this scale?

People have asked me, “What’s the dirt on this tornado? What really went wrong?” I’ve said, “We have experience in doing these things. The big thing that really grabbed us was the size of the event. We’ve had small tornadoes, ice storms and floods, comparatively — nothing of this size.”
We have had people from Springfield, Tulsa, Kansas City and other locations come in and work with our planning and zoning group, public works group and public information officer to help us, increase our staff load and also to gather information on experiences they’ve had.

What are a couple of major lessons that would have aided response?

First of all, let me emphasize that what we did in terms of response wasn’t that much different from how we responded to other disasters that we’ve been through. It was just on a larger scale. With that in mind, it’s easy to get complacent when you’re planning for an emergency response to whatever type of disaster you might have.

There are only two things you can do: run and hide. Running we call “evacuation,” and hiding we call “shelter in place.” We incorporate those in there, but if we had one failing prior to the tornado it was that we didn’t think much beyond the past. We would have a tornado exercise or a hazardous release exercise, but it was based on what we had seen before.

I’m confident that if I walked into a disaster planning session with an EF5 tornado scenario in my back pocket that would have killed 161 and damaged 7,500 structures, I would have pretty much been told, “That’s nice, but can we [work on] something that’s actually going to happen?”

Another big thing that helped us is that relationships are key. In the first 72 hours after the tornado, there was nobody who came into my EOC in terms of agency head or department head who I did not already know. On a local, state and federal level, these were people we’d already worked with.
One of the key elements that really helped with our communication among response personnel was the Incident Action Plan [IAP]. We ran 24/7 from Sunday through Friday night, then starting that Saturday, we ran 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. So we would have a meeting every day at 7 a.m., and our planning team had been working all night on the IAP so when people walked in, we had copies for them. “Here is today’s weather, today’s goals, etc.”

I wished we had printed more so that the police officer standing on the corner for eight hours directing traffic could look through one and say, “I see what they’re trying to do” and be able to point people in the right direction. We kind of assumed that would get pushed out to the individuals on the ground, but we could have done a better job of making sure that happened.

It’s almost impossible to be totally prepared for something like that isn’t it?

In emergency management, we participate in and we advocate for the all-hazards approach. In your standard National Incident Management System response and recovery, it’s people first, scene second and property third. We felt like we were fairly well prepared. Confidence is that feeling you have just before you fully understand a situation. We had, like, nine different exercises in the 12 months before the tornado. In fact, the Wednesday prior to that Sunday we had a four-hour EOC ops tabletop exercise in conjunction with seven states for an earthquake along the New Madrid fault. That helped a lot as far as making sure everybody knew their role, how to respond to the EOC and how those things were going to work.

People used to say “that can’t happen here,” and now they don’t say that anymore. I’ve had several emergency managers that have called me and said, “Can we have a map and outline or overlay of the path of the tornado?” And they’ve laid it over their own city because they know it happened in Joplin and it can happen there. They used that map for a tabletop exercise of how they would work things.

We continue to encourage builders and citizens that sheltering is a big deal. Many if not most of our schools, not just in Joplin but in surrounding areas, have applied for FEMA mitigation money on a 75/25 split that enables them to build storm shelters within their schools.
You have to adhere to certain building codes and standards, and most of this is low and moderate income. It’s quite a labyrinth to work through state and federal regulations that touch on many of these things.

Now we’re trying to raise the bar, but it’s going to take some time — it’s not something that’s done overnight. The trick is to continue to not let the momentum sway you to the point where you get back into the old way of doing things, but continue to stand up and say, “Look, it happened to us. What are we trying to do to make things better?”

How do you continue to get that point across and not let momentum lag?

One of the things we use is the fifth anniversary, and we’ve used the other anniversaries. It’s a chance for awareness. We do an annual weather education training within the city. Then I do about 20 different individual weather training sessions with churches, clubs, nonprofit organizations, governmental entities and such, and emphasize what happened and why.

Our planning and zoning departments continue to keep all this in mind and will for some time as they look at these new buildings that we want to put up, particularly for housing, and to say, “It happened to us and we’ve got to continue to hold tight and make sure we don’t go back to the way we were.” It might be a bit easier for us having been bitten so hard as opposed to a community say 50 miles down the road that wasn’t affected by it.