Joplin, Missouri Rebuilds and Renews after Deadly Tornado

Guidehouse worked with the city of Joplin to overcome disaster and build back a more resilient community

Challenge

In 2011, America’s most deadly tornado since official records began ripped through Joplin, killing 161 people, injuring more than 1,000, and causing losses approaching $3 billion. Flash flooding and winds that were estimated to reach over 200 mph affected 553 business structures and more than 7,000 residential buildings, heavily damaging or destroying more than 3,000 homes. The disaster left many residents grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, the city’s downtown devastated, and around 40% of yards contaminated with lead, a toxic legacy of Joplin’s mining past. Following the catastrophic events, Joplin remained at risk of tornadoes and focused on a goal to build back better. It received Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Resilience funding totaling $158 million8 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yet with multiple stakeholders; dramatic levels of damage, deprivation, and trauma; and specific fund distribution requirements to meet, the task ahead seemed daunting.

The disaster showcased weaknesses in the city’s resilience, from communication systems to utilities, housing stock to healthcare systems. As often occurs during natural disasters, feedback loops between linked systems caused cascading failures. Building back better meant building back differently, so the City of Joplin worked with the Guidehouse team to address key questions including:

  • How to repopulate and reinvigorate devastated downtown areas
  • How to rebuild damaged infrastructure to help mitigate future natural disasters
  • How to improve communications resilience for future disasters.

Solution

Reversing Population Flows with More Sustainable Housing

To obtain funding for rebuilding Joplin, it was vital to understand what had been lost. But even assessing the scale of the damage for valuation purposes proved an enormous task, with no digital records in existence and many paper records destroyed by the tornado. Quantifying details such as the square footage of sidewalk shattered or the number of streetlights uprooted became a matter of generating reverse archaeology with partners ranging from utilities to small contractors. Stakeholders worked together to reconstruct a record of what had been lost.

However, urban resilience extends beyond architecture to communities. In the aftermath of the disaster, many residents abandoned Joplin’s devastated downtown. Extensive community engagement helped build a shared goal of long-term social and economic recovery coupled with revitalization of infrastructure and public facilities. To revivify Joplin’s heart, the city launched the Joplin Homebuyer Assistance Program, which provided down payment assistance to low-income families to encourage them to move into areas where housing stock had been damaged. The team worked with the banking industry and builders to create access to financing and to develop affordable housing stock, thereby expanding homeownership to communities that had not previously benefited from it. 

New homes naturally featured resilient design. They were also, importantly, more sustainable—a strategy that further increases resilience by reducing energy use, environmental harms, and associated climate change impacts. The team coordinated with the Historic Joplin Preservation Commission to protect heritage neighborhoods and historic areas; an extensive urban forestry scheme followed a seasonal plan, as did construction, to avoid impacting endangered species. Homes were sited away from floodplains, while lead testing, coupled with cleanup, prevented rebuilding in hazardous areas. Policies encouraged the use of energy-efficient materials and construction methods, with energy-efficient appliances as standard. 

In addition, Joplin rebuilt existing infrastructure, created three streetscape projects that enabled more pedestrian-friendly environments, and recreated some of its downtown shopping areas. A redesign of the city’s sewerage and stormwater systems—which had been overwhelmed by tornado debris—increased capacity while routing water away from floodplains. Concrete piping built to withstand not only 100-year floods but also 200-year floods replaced antiquated lead sewer systems.

From Disaster Communications to Smart Cities

In the aftermath of the tornado, communications failed, with phone lines jammed and even emergency services reduced to old-fashioned two-way radios. Joplin identified internet access as a key tool not only to provide the unambiguous warning of impending disaster that was obviously lacking in 2011, but also to help with communications in the aftermath of tornadoes, flooding, or other disasters.

But by amplifying social and public services, building community, and enhancing agility, digital inclusion helps build resilience on a deeper level than disaster response alone. Understanding that the city is exposed to the megatrends of increasing urbanization and the fourth industrial revolution, Joplin and Guidehouse are looking past mere internet connectivity to a smart city model. Joplin plans to extend beyond its traditional industries of mining and manufacturing to attract remote workers, entrepreneurs, and the technology industry. 

Priorities for the first five years include expanding internet access, making city operations more efficient, creating an innovation district, building the city’s brand, and designing smart education and training programs to help citizens navigate the digital era. 

In addition to powering economic and social resilience, smart cities also have their role to play in disaster resilience. Smart water gauges that can anticipate and warn against flooding are on Joplin’s radar as the city gears up to navigate the myriad challenges of the 21st century: climate change, economic crises, demographic shifts, pandemics, and more.

Impact

From the immediate stage of disaster recovery through to the longer-term process of preparing the city to withstand looming mid-century challenges, Joplin displayed many of the characteristics that help entities build resilient systems:

  • Teamwork: In the aftermath of the disaster, it was striking how strongly residents pulled together to work on reconstruction. Stakeholders, likewise, put aside short-term differences of objectives and worked together on a common goal, engaging deeply with the community.
  • Innovation: Rather than rebuild the city on its old footprint, Joplin seized the opportunity to build more sustainably and futureproof the community, creating a bold vision of renewal that transcends resilience alone. 
  • Resourcefulness: Joplin’s journey back from the 2011 disaster has been a long and winding one. Throughout, the city has drawn on both internal resources and external expertise to chart its own course.

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