One year after tornado, rebuilding forges ahead

By Fred Koenig, Special Contributor…

Mission volunteers Larry Schmitz (left) and Mark Antes Jr., help to break up and clear a foundation in Joplin, Mo. In May 2011 a tornado there killed 160 people and caused $2.8 billion in damages; thousands of United Methodists have helped with cleanup and rebuilding. PHOTO RUSS MEHL

It’s been just over a year since an F5 tornado devastated the town of Joplin, Mo., killing 160 people and leaving the central core of the town in rubble. People close to the Missouri Conference’s role in the recovery effort are in agreement on two things regarding progress since that fateful day: Rebuilding is going well, and there is still a lot to do.

“We are well ahead of where we expected to be a year ago,” said Jeff Baker, Missouri Conference disaster response coordinator. “Part of that is due to tremendous support Joplin has received from outside of its community.

The recovery process has been well funded. Last year more than $1 million was given to the Missouri Conference in support of Joplin. Of that, about $800,000 came from churches, $135,000 from other conferences, and more than $200,000 from individuals.

Joplin had an expedited debris removal process, and heavy equipment was used to quickly clear lots so that rebuilding could begin sooner.

“There are other communities that were hit by a tornado before Joplin that are still cleaning up debris,” Mr. Baker said.

One contractor working through the Office of Creative Ministries cleared 130 demolished homes in six weeks.

Another factor that has progressed ahead of schedule is the weather. Exceptionally warm weather allowed work to continue outdoors through nearly all of the winter, and spring came very early.

So far about $70,000 has been spent on Habitat for Humanity homes, $200,000 by the Office of Creative Ministries and $110,000 to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. The total amount of donations spent is $467,000.

The neighborhood around St. Paul's UMC stands devastated by a tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., in this May 2011 file photo. Nearly 100 families from the church lost their homes. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

The amount of money on hand recently doubled. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) awarded the Missouri Conference a $500,000 grant for additional disaster response work in Joplin. That money will primarily go toward repair and rebuilding work.

“Most of the people we are working with now are the uninsured or underinsured,” Mr. Baker said.

There are also many people who are now having a hard time due to contractor fraud.

“We’ve had several cases in which we are helping someone who has paid a contractor several thousand dollars, but the contractor never finished the work,” Mr. Baker said.

The tornado hit Joplin on May 22,2011, and according to an Associated Press report was the most damaging in the United States in more than half a century, causing about $2.8 billion in damages and directly affecting at least 17,000 people.

The nine-year-old worship center at St. Paul’s UMC was left in ruins, and there was major damage as well to the church’s family life center. St. James UMC was destroyed.

The tornado’s aftermath has seen a massive cleanup and rebuilding effort, with United Methodists very much in the mix.

Volunteers Jacob Burrow (front) and Mark Swyden clear trees downed by the tornado in Joplin, Mo., in this May 2011 file photo. They are members of Christ's Community United Methodist Church in Joplin. In 2011, volunteers organized through the Missouri Conference contributed 16,371 hours to Joplin's recovery. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

Ivan Lindner is the construction coordinator for Missouri Conference volunteer teams. He tries to line up projects with teams’ skill sets, and authorizes expenses on projects. He is a volunteer from Wood’s Chapel UMC in Lee’s Summit who has been in Joplin since the tornado hit and is now working with the Office of Creative Ministries. He had a career in construction management before he retired in 2010.

“It worked out real well for me to be available to help in this way,” he said.

Mr. Lindner’s first several months in Joplin were entirely at his own expense. He now stays in a camper-trailer owned by the Office of Creative Ministries, and receives a $1,200-a-month stipend.

Sometimes the homeowner has the materials on hand, and just needs volunteer help with labor. In other cases some materials are purchased for the home repairs. The goal is to not spend more than $3,000 on any one home.

“We work closely with other organizations, like Catholic Charities or Lutheran Hearts, to fill in the gaps where needed,” Mr. Lindner said. Those organizations are all housed together in a small warehouse where they keep office space, and they have enough room to assemble new walls for Habitat for Humanity houses when volunteers need to work inside.

‘So much work to do’

Missy Nance is the volunteer coordinator in Joplin for the Missouri Conference. Like Mr. Lindner, she first went to Joplin on June 5, 2011, as a volunteer from Woods Chapel UMC. She started regularly filling in a few days a week in Joplin, while still working full-time at Woods Chapel. A few months ago she replaced Jamie Piper as the Missouri Conference volunteer coordinator.

At times last summer there were as many as 400 people a day volunteering in Joplin through the Missouri Conference. The Office of Creative Ministries partnered with Americorp and Rebuild Joplin for job assignments. Projects are also coming through the school and the city.

The Rev. Mark Statler, pastor of discipleship and missions at St. Paul’s UMC, said in the beginning managing masses of volunteers was not too hard.

“There was so much work to do, it was pretty easy to quickly send people out on a job,” he said.
But by mid-summer, he could see that if local churches could increase their coordination, they could greatly increase the productivity of their volunteers. A weekly meeting developed.

“I was trying to help create a stronger bridge between the Office of Creative Ministries and our local churches,” Mr. Statler said.

Mr. Statler said he benefited from the process, as he formed a clearer picture of how things were progressing in other areas, and formed relationships with people in other churches who were active in the relief effort.

Total volunteer hours in Joplin from volunteers who worked through the Missouri Conference were 16,371 in 2011. In the first four months of 2012, Missouri Conference volunteers worked 22,108 hours.

When Mr. Statler looks around today, he can hardly believe what he sees. New homes are coming up across the street from St. Paul’s, where there were only broken foundations last fall. St. Paul’s itself is well along in reconstruction, and hopes to be back in its sanctuary by summer’s end, while St. James recently had a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building.

“Joplin has made an indescribable amount of progress,” Mr. Statler said.

Summer help

Obviously, there’s still plenty to do. The volunteer flow has been lighter lately, but it’s about to pick up again with the start of summer. Missouri Conference Youth Summer Workcamps will be in Joplin this year, bringing as many as 180 volunteers at a time. Summer is also a popular time for local churches to plan mission trips. In June the volunteer count will be about 250 a day, in July it will get back up to 350 a day.

“It’s a blessing that we’ve had this kind of response,” Ms. Nance said. “I have been warning people that we won’t have many inside work projects available. There will be a lot of landscaping and park work out in the heat.”

It has been estimated that there may be 2,000 to 3,000 volunteers per week (from all organizations present) working in Joplin in June and July. Volunteer coordinators have been gearing up for the sudden wave that is about to hit.

“If you need a certain number of people to do a job, it can create a real challenge if you end up with that number plus 50, or that number plus 200,” Mr. Lindner said.

Mr. Lindner occasionally has teams working on homes that are not directly in the tornado impact zone. These homes may not qualify for government assistance programs due to their location, but the people there need help.

“We’re starting to see a lot of people who are falling through the cracks. We had an elderly woman with pans all over her house from a leaking roof, because she lost shingles in the storm, but she wasn’t directly affected by the tornado,” Mr. Lindner said. “The way I see it, we’re the church, and we’re there to help whoever needs help.”

The amount of money being spent is picking up.

“Early on, our outlay of money was small because we were mainly just providing volunteer labor,” Mr. Lindner said. “Now we’re working with more people who have less means of getting repairs made on their own, so we’re doing more.”

Mission volunteers from New Covenant UMC in Edmond, Okla., traveled to Joplin in February. The weather stayed warmer than usual throughout most of the winter, allowing work to continue outdoors.

What was initially thought to be a simple paint job may reveal rotten wood in the prep phase, and call for more extensive carpentry work.

Ms. Nance currently has 150 projects on her referral list, ranging from landscaping to complete home rebuilds.

“On some of the rebuilds the volunteers have done almost everything. On one the only thing we hired out was the foundation,” she said.

The volunteers are not working on rental property owned by landlords. Lack of available rental property is why many Joplin residents are still living in impromptu FEMA trailer parks. Much of the housing that was destroyed was low-rent rental property. A concern is that little rental property is being built back, and the new property that is being constructed will command a higher rate of rent. Many of the people still living in the FEMA trailers are there because they cannot find a low-rent alternative.

“These people want to get back into permanent, established neighborhoods, but they don’t have anywhere to go,” Mr. Statler said.

For the remaining work to be done, Mr. Statler said there is a great spirit throughout the city, and he’s optimistic about the future.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of cooperation between the city, churches and all of the volunteers. It’s very impressive to me,” Mr. Statler said. “It’s very heartening, and very hope-filled. We welcome outside help, but we know that in the end we all have to band together here to get it done.”


Mr. Koenig is editor of the Missouri Conference Review, where this story first appeared. United Methodist News Service contributed.


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