Long Road to Disaster Recovery Starts and Ends with Community Support

May 23, 2016
Originally published on May 22, 2016 11:48 pm

For natural disaster victims, the length of a recovery has become synonymous with the distance of a marathon. The goal is to successfully sprint out of the gates during the initial response, providing necessary services and supplies. But recovery is realized in years, not months.

Joplin City Manager Sam Anselm said, “Knowing the people in your communities, what their capabilities are, is gonna be key in terms of shortening that marathon time, I think.”

“Everything that you hope to rebuild your city has to begin in that initial response so that you’re citizens feel confident in local, state and federal government,” Tuscaloosa, Alabama Mayor Walter Maddox said.

Maddox - whose city suffered 53 fatalities in a April 20111 tornado - joined Anselm and other leaders from tornado-stricken communities at a session of the Disaster Recovery Summit in Joplin Thursday.  

"When you have your event, everyone rushes to your community," said Maddox. "You may even get a visit by the president and high-ranking members of the cabinet. And the national spotlight burns very deeply on your community – until the next major news story.”

At that point it can become a lonely challenge, says Maddox, if not for strong community support; an essential component to any disaster recovery.

Joplin resident Carrie Kent and her two sons are beneficiaries of that support. Within months after the tornado destroyed their apartment unit she became a home owner for the first time.  Hers was one of the first homes constructed in October 2011 through Habitat for Humanity.

“Our community came together to help others. People, strangers, came from all around to help me,” said Kent.

On the day of the tornado, Kent actually took cover in her dad’s storm shelter. Kent wonders if she and her sons would have survived had they been at the apartment that day. When they got to the unit after the storm, an entire side of the apartment’s walls had been ripped away. A refrigerator from the unit upstairs had fallen through the floor and on top of Kent’s bed. An outside dumpster had blown through the apartment and crushed the very room in which they would have sought shelter.

Now, their home has a safe room. 

Kent adds, “We no longer had to go to anybody else’s house when it rained to be safe. Our home was now our safe place. And it just changed our world dramatically.”

As of February, Habitat for Humanity had completed 105 homes since the tornado. In Kent’s case, the return to normalcy, or perhaps a new normal with a permanent home, came rather quickly.

But that’s not the case for everyone.

Meri Stewart spent a year and a half in temporary housing after the storm.

She said, “All of my belongings fit in a few bags and boxes. And after a month we’d have to pack up and we’d go here and we’d go here. And even when we lived in the FEMA park, we knew that it wasn’t permanent.”

Her Habitat for Humanity Home was completed in late 2012.

The pace of recovery is perhaps the most frustrating after a disaster. While leaders at the recovery summit agreed federal support is key, that government funding could trickle in over years.

This is the stage of the marathon when cities might think they've hit the wall - the metaphoric barrier that is seemingly halting your progress.

That’s why for all the challenges, Tuscaloosa Mayor Maddox says you have to celebrate the little things.

“Never overlook those small physiological opportunities to boost the morale of your community,” says Maddox.

Like in the case of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where nearly eight years ago massive flooding caused doubt over the city’s economic stability. Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler says cereal manufacturer Quaker Oats gave the city the morale boost its citizens needed.

“They hooked up a generator in downtown to light the Quaker Oats sign on the top of the building. And that CEO of Pepsi-Co out of Chicago came in to let our community know that Quaker Oats was coming back and their thousand employees would still have a job,” said Fowler. 

Joplin has had much to celebrate. 2015 Census data shows the population has risen by nearly 700 since the storm. Over 1,600 homes have been constructed, and close to 90 percent of businesses damaged in the tornado have rebuilt, plus new industry is coming in.

These are successes aided in large part by community support and the relationships created before and and immediately after the disaster.

“News media’s gonna come and go, federal agencies are gonna come and go. Every community’s story is going to start and it’s going to end with the people of that community,” Joplin City Manager Sam Anselm said.

Joplin will hold a "Gathering of Remembrance and Hope" Sunday afternoon at Cunningham Park, marking 5 years since the tornado took 161 lives. The day is also a reminder that while the recovery marathon is not over, community support and its collective resiliency continues. 

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