Facts and Figures from the Joplin Tornado: What Did It Cost?
The facts of the story are all too familiar by now—especially to those who lived through it. On Sunday May 22nd, 2011, the most devastating level of tornado, an EF-5 packing winds of over 200 miles per hour, tore through Joplin, Missouri. The ¾-mile-wide twister touched down at the western city limits of Joplin, stayed on the ground clear across the city for six miles, and continued another seven miles into the town of Duquesne and into rural Jasper and Newton counties. 161 people lost their lives that afternoon.
Now, it’s been five years since the Joplin tornado. It would be very easy for anyone who doesn’t live in Joplin to assume that the city’s recovery is already complete, or must be nearing completion. It’s been five years... what’s left to do?
Actually, quite a bit. The city has definitely made progress, according to Joplin’s City Planning and Development Director Troy Bolander. But he warns, “There’s actually a lot to do. This is a marathon—redevelopment and recovery does not occur overnight. We’re hoping to have the majority of our projects completed by 2019. But we’re right in the middle of the recovery still, especially with our infrastructure projects and some of our housing projects as well.”
Joplin City Manager Sam Anselm estimates the tornado affected probably a third of the city, “in terms of square footage and area.” And the one-third of the city that was affected came at a terrible price. I mentioned the 161 lives lost. According to the City of Joplin Public Information Office, there were 7,500 residential dwellings damaged by the storm; of those, well over half, 4,000, were completely destroyed, causing some 9,200 people to be displaced. Mercy Hospital Joplin was demolished, as were Joplin High School and several elementary schools. The city itself sustained damage to two fire stations, No.2 and No.4, both of which were completely destroyed, as well as damage to half a dozen city parks—not to mention damage to transportation infrastructure including curbs, streets, sidewalks, lights, signs and signals.
However, as Sam Anselm says, they still feel lucky there wasn’t more widespread destruction. While a third of Joplin was basically wiped out, “two-thirds of our city was unaffected, so that was beneficial for us. We were able to stage operations out of other city facilities. So it’s not like it hit a critical city facility like City Hall or the Police or Fire Departments.”
But then there was the effect on area business and commerce. The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce reported in April 2014 that 553 businesses had been destroyed or severely damaged by the 2011 tornado, affecting nearly 5,000 employees. Both Planning and Development Director Troy Bolander and Joplin Mayor Mike Seibert mentioned a very popular pizza restaurant, Pizza by Stout on Rangeline—a longtime Joplin institution—whose owners decided not to rebuild, which made a lot of people unhappy. But as Mayor Seibert notes, “Thankfully, those (businesses who elected not to rebuild) were really in the minority. We were so very fortunate that so many of our businesses—we feel like there were about 550 businesses damaged or destroyed in the tornado—and less than 10 percent of those chose not to rebuild. And so we feel like that’s a pretty impressive number from a business standpoint. Plus the fact that we’ve have over 250 new businesses come to this community, or start up in the community, since the tornado.”
Here’s where we really get down to the heart of the matter: the actual cost of the disaster, as provided by the Missouri Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration. Counting all the commercial and residential property affected, as well as disposal of the nearly three million cubic yards of residential debris throughout the disaster area, and demolition of condemned properties, the total cost of the Joplin tornado was just over two billion dollars.
So what has been accomplished so far in the recovery? With the help of state and federal disaster assistance from more than a dozen Federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program—not to mention donations from all over the world, many hundreds of homes and apartments have been repaired or rebuilt. Businesses have rebuilt. A number of elementary schools, as well as Joplin High School, were destroyed or damaged, and by September 2014 all had been returned to permanent facilities. Mercy Hospital Joplin, which was destroyed, opened its new Medical Center and offices in March 2015. And Joplin city leaders are especially pleased that ground has broken for the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences College of Osteopathic Medicine, scheduled to open in the fall of 2017.
However, as Troy Bolander told us, disaster recovery is a “marathon.” And in Joplin’s case they’re right in the middle of the recovery effort—five years after the tornado. And there’s much more work to be done.