Rebuilding Joplin: Nonprofit Attacks the Hurdles of Long-Term Recovery

The nonprofit organization Rebuild Joplin hopes its lessons help the next ‘Joplin’ make a smoother transition to recovery.

by / May 14, 2012
Kate Massey and Garen McMillian of Rebuild Joplin. Photo by Gabe Hopkins Photo by Gabe Hopkins

It was a typically hectic weekend for Kate Massey with her son’s third birthday on Sunday, May 22, and the impending family party. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary that day as the family left for the party site, a bounce-house facility in Joplin, Mo.

At about 4:00 p.m., facility personnel told the family of an approaching storm, but said they could stay if they wanted. By 5:00 most of the partygoers were gone, so Kate’s husband took a look at the local weather before the ride home.

Radar suggested a rough ride home, so the family decided to dine at a nearby restaurant and wait out the storm. But 20 minutes into dinner, it was apparent that this was no routine storm. With a 3-year-old and a new baby, Kate Massey felt terror like never before as restaurant staff ushered the family away from windows. “For the first time in my life, I was afraid I was about to lose something amazing,” she said.

Massey remembers the screams of the news anchor from the television. The restaurant went black, and everyone huddled in the kitchen until the storm passed. On the way home, the Masseys passed the sites of disaster: a dead person in a tree and residents standing in the street gazing in shock at the devastation. “It looked like a bomb had exploded,” Massey said of the 20th Street route the family took home that evening. “I felt sick.”

Days passed with no local communications. Residents watched the national news as the death toll climbed (eventually to 161) and saw an outpouring of compassion, which included offers of goods and services. Unfortunately some of the contributions were going to waste.

“We started hearing stories about resources being turned away,” said Jerrod Hogan, who cited a bus full of volunteers being told to go back home because there were no means of coordinating the efforts.

Rather than “getting out of the way,” as he’d been doing, Hogan decided he needed to help. He’d recently helped create Bright Futures, a program that matches community resources with underprivileged children, and some of the Bright Futures volunteers were calling him asking how they could help. Through connections from the program, Hogan met Garen McMillian who had taken to the streets delivering bottled water to those who needed it.

“Like a lot of other people, I thought there would be people coming in with a plan for Joplin,” McMillian said. “There was no plan.”

McMillian, who has an IT background, met with Hogan the Friday night after the Sunday storm and the two worked around the clock until they had launched on Sunday evening.

“We started simple,” Hogan said. “On the website, we had two blue buttons: ‘I was affected, click here’ and ‘I want to help, click here.”’

In those first days, the nonprofit Rebuild Joplin had three missions: connect needs and resources, make sure money going into Joplin stayed with organizations there, and document lessons learned.

Mostly the organization tried to match resources with those in need. “We didn’t take goods or services directly,” Hogan said. “We acted as a conduit to pass people through.”

The day after the website launched, the United Way from Columbia, Mo., pledged to help support the effort financially.

Hogan, a land surveyor by trade, was lending his time to the cause. McMillian had just completed nearly two years of training to be a financial adviser and was a week into his full-time job at Wells Fargo, when his boss had a suggestion. He could continue his training for which he’d get a stipend, but he would spend his time with Rebuild Joplin. Wells Fargo brass complied with the request, essentially loaning McMillian to the effort for three months.

“It was like the perfect solution to everything,” said McMillian, who had been worried about how he’d garner clients in the new position. “It was a way for me to plug in and make a difference with the talents I’m best at.” So he became acting director.

They soon hired Massey, who left a job in financial services to join the group as the development director. Massey said she felt a responsibility to do something.

At first, the website received 10,000 hits per day and surveys indicated that resources were getting to where they were needed. In time, the hits dwindled to around 100 per day. “People were no longer looking for temporary shelter or food or clothing,” Hogan said. “They had switched from short-term recovery to long term.”

To stay relevant, the team realized that Rebuild Joplin had to evolve to fit the community’s needs. That meant helping families with housing needs. The team joined a long-term recovery committee per FEMA recommendations, but was frustrated by the lack of examples of long-term recovery plans.

“I can’t tell you how many times in so many different contexts over the last 10 months I’ve heard somebody say, ‘Well, there’s not a manual for this,’” Hogan said. “I can pick out a handful of things that could be standardized — even implemented the day of, the day after the disaster — that would have changed where we are as a community right now.”

He said that nearly 11 months after the tornado, families were still without homes, but there’s no accurate count of them. “I don’t understand that,” Hogan said. “We have this case management system, but because of the way it was handled, we don’t know if there are 200 families or 2,000.”

It wasn’t until January that Rebuild Joplin became the construction arm of the operation, tackling the need for housing, and the Long Term Recovery Committee, with Hogan as co-chair, began to handle other unmet needs.

Rebuild Joplin began constructing and rebuilding homes. At the end of March, it had completed four homes and was in the process of completing 14 others. The goal is 100 by the end of the year.

“Our goal is to do construction management for anyone whose critical need is housing,” said Massey, who became executive director after McMillian left. Two programs offer housing on a case-by-case basis to residents who were homeowners and financially unable to rebuild, and to residents who were renters prior to the tornado and want to buy homes.

Recipients must have sustainable income and can’t own more than one property. There are provisions, like requiring a second mortgage, to assure that those receiving a home stay in it for a certain period of time and don’t sell it to make a profit.

Rebuild Joplin helps recipients with financial responsibility classes; home maintenance classes; and with their credit score and securing  a mortgage from a bank. The not-for-profit then helps build the house with donated labor and donated or discounted materials. An AmeriCorps grant subsidizes the four full-time Rebuild Joplin staff, and AmeriCorps teams arrive every eight weeks to help with construction.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who desire to be homeowners but never had a chance before,” Massey said. “They’re integrated into a neighborhood where they may not have lived before, and we have really great mixed income neighborhoods in development in the tornado zone now.”

Steve Castaner, FEMA branch director and long-term community recovery specialist, said FEMA encourages new organizations like Rebuild Joplin to join the Long-Term Recovery Committee table. “Rebuild Joplin was another tool in the toolbox that complemented Catholic Charities in their rebuilding and case management services, Lutheran Social Services and many other nongovernmental organizations that were active.”

Mark Rohr, Joplin’s city manager, said there are many different recovery efforts in progress, but categorized Rebuild Joplin as “doing great work. They’re dedicated young professionals in our community who have made sacrifices to help the city.” And it essentially began at a restaurant called Instant Karma.

In mid-August, Massey and McMillian met to discuss some issues over lunch. They ran into a city official and her guest, who were also meeting for lunch. The guest turned out to be Zack Rosenburg, co-founder of the St. Bernard Project in New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that has rebuilt more than 425 homes since 2006.

The four began talking and the conversation continued later that evening between McMillian and Rosenburg. McMillian was convinced that Rosenburg’s and the St. Bernard Project’s work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina could be a model for Joplin.

“We went to Joplin because we saw the human toll from delay,” Rosenburg said. “We saw communities ripped apart, and the bond between citizens and government becomes frayed after disasters when recoveries are indefinite.”

McMillian and Hogan visited the St. Bernard Project to “make sure Zack wasn’t 100 percent full of it,” as McMillian put it. “It was fate,” Hogan said. Rosenburg and his project passed the test, and Rebuild Joplin became an affiliate of the St. Bernard Project.

Initially the St. Bernard Project was a silo and had its own Long Term Recovery Committee. Over six years that changed and partners, including Toyota, UPS, Dow and Zurich were brought in.

“We’re taking St. Bernard’s model, which is tweaked and improved by Toyota, UPS, etc., and sharing with all the members of the Long Term Recovery Committee,” Hogan said. “We don’t have to create our own corporate partnerships; we get to start where [St. Bernard] evolved over six years. People are going home in the next couple of weeks that wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for the gift New Orleans has given us in terms of its model and efficiency.”

Toyota representatives visit twice a week to teach Rebuild Joplin about the company’s production system in a way that can translate into building homes. “They’ve had huge success in taking the business model and fusing it with the compassion a lot of nonprofits are fueled by,” Hogan said.

Rosenburg said the Rebuild Joplin founders had seen disaster recovery pitfalls firsthand and were ready for solutions. “They understood the need for true accountability, efficiency and coordination, and saw the impact of standardized ways of doing things.” he said. “We verified their belief of redundancy and accountability.”

Accountability, including fraudulent contractors, was a major issue in New Orleans after Katrina — and one that Rebuild Joplin dealt with early on.

One Rebuild Joplin client was a woman with four kids whose house was severely damaged by the tornado. She was still living in the house with broken windows and a disconnected heater. The temperature was dropping to around 30 degrees at night. She had $8,000 in insurance and had hired a contractor who then vanished.

“We walked through the house and saw a hole in the bathroom,” Hogan explained. She said some volunteer groups had later redone the roof and asked if they could dismantle the chimney. The woman agreed but part of the chimney fell into the bathroom, creating the hole — but it was the volunteers’ last day on the job so they left.

“There’s a lot of goodwill and not enough structure,” Hogan said. “A little bit of a process, a little bit of coaching and somebody keeping track of everything. You’re not going to prevent the hole in the floor, but you can prevent it from staying there for three months.”

McMillian likened the beginning of the recovery process to someone stepping on an ant hill. “It’s like a lot of ants scurrying around.” He said there was no discipline in the process. “It ranges from simple things like having more impactful meetings, to showing up on time to actually setting goals with deadlines on projects. We’re talking about basic stuff here.”

McMillian said the biggest lesson was to not wait for help. “We’d never been through anything like this and had never heard the mantra, ‘A disaster starts locally and ends locally.’ I’ve heard it a bazillion times now.”

The St. Bernard Project developed standardization and accountability through its aforementioned private partners. Toyota brought its production system model to the organization and taught the importance of constant improvement. Rosenburg said construction time was reduced by 40 percent in New Orleans after Toyota’s model was employed.

Toyota and UPS are helping create solutions that can be documented and “manualized,” Rosenburg said — Toyota with its production expertise and UPS with logistics.

The learning curve for Rebuild Joplin was steep, and the hope is that their sweat will make it easier for the next Joplin. “We did a kick-ass job on response,” McMillian said. “On the recovery side, it’s been a tough haul and a lot of it is because we didn’t realize that we are fully autonomous. What’s important for communities to realize down the road is they can make their recovery look the way they want it to look. That doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch every time.”

Barb Sturner, FEMA external affairs specialist with Region VII, said Joplin is a great example of the whole community approach. “It’s the best I’ve seen in a long time.”

Rohr, the city manager, said more resources are on the way for Joplin. The city has received about $45 million in Community Development Block Grants and also hopes to get Economic Development Administration funds to help. “We’re working with a master developer and have agreed to the early stages of development,” Rohr said. “We’re on a more specific agreement for them to be more deeply involved with Joplin.”

There’s a long way to go, but the sights and sounds are encouraging. Massey makes a point once a week to drive home via 20th Street, where she first witnessed the destruction. Now, instead of hearing chain saws cutting through fallen trees, she hears table saws cutting lumber for new homes.

Hospitals and Schools First in Recovery Efforts

After a disaster, hospitals and schools are first priorities for rebuilding, and businesses and communities are next. Hospitals top the list for obvious reasons, and schools maintain a sense of normalcy after a disaster, which is important.

Nearly a year after the devastating tornado hit Joplin, Mo., hospitals and schools are on the mend. Within a week after the tornado destroyed St. John’s Medical Center, a 60-bed tent hospital was opened to serve the community. Within a few months, a small trailer-like hospital was assembled that, within eight months of the tornado, transitioned to a permanent 100-bed structure that was built in a California factory. Trucks and trains hauled 224 pieces, some 60 feet by 14 feet, piece by piece across the country to the site. The structure looks like a conventionally built hospital.

The new hospital is said to be 30 percent stronger than the one destroyed and offers technological improvements, such as newer, more powerful imaging technology. 

The quick response is credited with relationships built beforehand. “That was the big thing. The response went so well in all aspects because of those relationships,” said Chris Harmon, chief emergency services officer for the American Red Cross Greater Ozarks Chapter in Springfield, Mo. “We had things not so much spelled out, like we do now, but we knew each other by name. We knew what to expect from each other.”

The tornado destroyed three Joplin schools, and the total damages exceeded $150 million. Finding buildings to house students during the fall semester was a challenge, but some classes were held in a mall that was secured by the local school district. High school juniors and seniors are taking classes in a big-box store while middle school students are being taught in an industrial park. Joplin schools expected a 30 percent loss in students, but in actuality lost just 5 percent.

Joplin schools will receive nearly $86 million in insurance and more than $35 million from FEMA, but Election Day will be critical for rebuilding as residents vote on a bond issue that would add $65 to local property tax on a $100,000 home.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at

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