Joplin community endorses tornado recovery plan

Friday, January 20, 2012 | 2:42 p.m. CST; updated 3:48 p.m. CST, Friday, January 20, 2012
Nearly eight months after an EF-5 tornado left 161 people dead, the damaged and abandoned St. John's Regional Medical center is seen between two houses being rebuilt Thursday in Joplin. The city has issued nearly 4,000 building permits to homeowners since the tornado hit on May 22.

JOPLIN — Community leaders in Joplin have resoundingly endorsed a long-term tornado recovery plan they hope will serve as a national example for other disaster-ravaged areas. The standing ovations and shouts of praise from a grateful public were a good start.

The Joplin City Council, Joplin Board of Education and Joplin City Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Board of Aldermen in neighboring Duquesne, swiftly approved the recovery plan Thursday night. The only hiccup: passing a microphone from one end to the other of a U-shaped table crammed with 45 elected officials and business owners.

The plan, "Joplin Area — Next Steps Plan," was developed by a group of volunteers based on comments offered by area residents at a series of public discussions that began several weeks after the May 22 tornado. The Joplin tornado killed 161 people and destroyed thousands of buildings, from homes and churches to big-box retail businesses and one of the city's two hospitals.

Recommendations include the creation of four new business districts that would allow residents to live and shop nearby. The plan also calls for a city committee to ensure new construction meets certain design standards, including more landscaping to offset commercial projects and parking lots.

The report from the JoplinCitizens Advisory Recovery Team also recommends greater enforcement of nuisance codes, increased efforts to encourage homeowners to buy property insurance, and the construction of a Joplin medical school, a project long sought by local leaders. A "master developer" hired by the city will oversee the rebuilding plan. The city is soliciting proposals for that position through the end of the month.

The 21-page document doesn't include very many specifics about how to pay for such projects. That's by design, said Jane Cage, a Joplin business owner and chairwoman of the advisory panel. She called the plan "a skeleton that will become the framework for recovery."

"This is not a complete recovery plan," she said. "It's not cast in granite. This is not the Ten Commandments of recovery. ... This is a signal to everyone that we are ready to pick up the pace."

Once it was time for public comments, no one in the crowd of roughly 150 people stood up to speak.

"We're happy," a man shouted from his seat.

After a second request for comments, Joplin resident John Hale approached the podium. The retired senior vice president at Leggett & Platt, who said he "used to live at 2424 Illinois" before his home was destroyed, had nothing but kind words to say.

"I'm here to say, 'thank you very much,'" Hale said. "It's unbelievable, the level of cooperation that has taken place here. ... We are so proud of you."

That cooperative spirit is being noticed by lawmakers in Jefferson City, said state Sen. Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican who presided over the meeting. A Kansas City-based Federal Emergency Management Agency official offered similarly high marks.

"This is absolutely exciting, wonderful, heartwarming," said Steve Castaner, a disaster assistance specialist with FEMA. "It's really amazing to see communities come together and make some real strides to work together. It's logical that everyone should work together and communicate, but sometimes it's easier said than done. It doesn't always happen that way."

Signs of the recovery are emerging in Joplin, accelerated by a comparatively mild winter that has allowed construction to continue uninterrupted. The city has issued more than 3,750 building permits to home owners since May 22, and the Missouri Housing Development Commission has committed about $100 million in tax credits and loans over the coming decade to spark the construction of low-to-moderate income rental units and single-family, owner-occupied homes in the Joplin area.

Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce President Rob O'Brian said Thursday that 420 of the 530 local businesses that were either destroyed or heavily damaged have since reopened. The local group hosted a delegation of national business executives Thursday from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as United Parcel Service Inc., Shell, Speedco, Toyota Motor Corp. and the Discovery Channel.

And on Friday, Joplinreceived more good news with the announcement that the city will receive $45.2 million in Community Development Block Grants to assist with disaster recovery. The grants represent 11 percent of the roughly $400 million approved by Congress two months ago for nationwide disaster recovery.

Joshua Barnes, disaster recovery coordinator at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said the group was impressed with Joplin's resilience and the community's work ethic.

"One of the biggest things that distinguish communities that can thrive (after a disaster) are those that can organize themselves, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps," he said. "Joplin has really demonstrated that capacity."

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