Special to The Sun
The experience of Joplin, MO., provides a gauge for estimating how long it will take Oklahoma cities to recover from the powerful May tornadoes that struck parts of Little Axe, south Oklahoma City, Moore and the El Reno area.
Kirstie Smith, communications director for the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city has come a long way since the devastating May 22, 2011 tornado there, but still has a ways to go. Like Boston Strong, a nickname associated with that city’s reaction to the marathon bombing, Joplin has its own nickname — We Are Joplin, Smith said.
“This community really has defied all expectations of outsiders through all this,” she said.
Based on Joplin’s experience, recovery in the hardest hit areas of Oklahoma will take a long, long time, Smith said.
“We have needs for a long time to come,” she added.
Regarding population, Joplin has virtually the same number — about 50,000 — of residents, which swells to more than 200,000 during business hours, as it did before that terrible day more than two years ago, Smith said.
At 5:41 p.m. on May 22, 2011, a tornado touched down at the edge of the western city limits, traveled on the ground and reached EF-5 strength as it tracked to the eastern city limits, according to a City of Joplin fact sheet dated May 22, 2013. It destroyed or damaged 7,500 homes; about 4,000 were destroyed, displacing an estimated 9,200 people. In one way or another, more than 17,000 people were affected by the disaster.
Bit by bit, step by step, Joplin made progress.
In June 2012, Joplin’s unemployment rate was 6.9 percent; in June 2011 it was 8.9 percent.
In July 2012, the Joplin City Council approved a pre-development agreement with Wallace Baggily, a development firm from Texas, to serve as the master developer in recovery efforts.
Planners made an intentional effort to reincorporate all of the city in the restoration plans, Smith said. Community input was also an important part of the recovery for city officials, Smith said.
“It cut the city in two,” she said.
In December 2012, the Joplin City Council approved a plan to form a Tax Increment Financing district that includes 19 major projects consisting of more than 3,000 acres within Joplin including the disaster area. Each project will follow a standard process of development, allowing public to comment prior to council’s consideration.
Mercy Hospital Joplin is working on new medical center and offices at 50th Street and Hearnes Boulevard. The hospital and temporary offices will cost nearly $1 billion by the time the new medical center is completed in 2015.
As of May 6, 2013, 574 households (98 percent) had moved out of FEMA temporary housing into longer-term or permanent housing. Habitat for Humanity had built 61 homes.
FEMA recovery specialists helped the Joplin community establish a citizen-based, long-term recovery effort known as the Joplin Area Citizens Advisory Recovery Team. With input from a broad cross-section of the community, the team developed a long-term recovery strategy, the implementation of which is under way.
FEMA continues to work with a local Long-Term Recovery Committee, representing more than 50 voluntary agencies. To date, the committee has handled more than 1,500 cases of unmet, disaster-related needs.
As of April 1, 2013, 500 businesses have reopened or are in the process of reopening (553 businesses were destroyed or severely damaged and 4,500-5,000 employees were affected), 30 have indicated they will not rebuild or reopen and about 100 new businesses have opened, according to the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Joplin Public Schools hopes to return students to two elementary schools and one middle school in December; a new high school/technology center is scheduled to open in August 2014.
Volunteers responded to Joplin as they are to Oklahoma now. Smith said the city wouldn’t be where it is today without all of the support.
Through April 30, 2013, over 175,000 volunteers have responded, including those registered through AmeriCorps and from other organizations who have reported hours to them, according to the city’s fact sheet. Reporting organizations and agencies have logged more than one million hours of service, equaling nearly 110 years worth of service at a 24/7 pace since May 22, 2011.
Alex Weintz, spokesman for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, said thanks to local, state and federal officials working together the state has made enormous progress since the May 2013 storms.
“Oklahomans have come together,” Weintz said.
In Canadian and Oklahoma counties alone, more than 538 homes and businesses were impacted by the May 28-June 2 storms, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. This includes 52 destroyed, 193 with major damage and 159 with minor damage.
Debris removal is progressing in places including Moore, Weintz said.
The governor’s office is continuing to work on various issues including adding more counties to the disaster declaration, taking steps to maximize local dollars and exploring options for more shelters in schools, which would not be state-issued mandate, Weintz said. Fallin also has spoken to the Joplin mayor.
Officials recognize it will be more than a two-week or a two-month recovery, Weintz said.
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